Stories / Partners, Impact

Safeguarding the Navajo Nation's Natural Resources

Navajo restaurateur Bleu Adams’s Protect Native Elders organization provides aid during COVID-19

Kim Baca

November 19, 2020

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Photo: Oak Adams

The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP), presented by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry and the Audi #DriveProgress initiative, we’re sharing stories of trailblazers who have stepped up to help their communities in light of COVID-19, as well as individuals who are putting inclusion and equity at the forefront of building back better. Through #DriveProgress, Audi is committed to cultivating and promoting a culture that enables women to achieve their highest potential by removing barriers to equity, inclusivity, growth, and development.

Below, Kim Baca spoke to 2020 James Beard Foundation Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership fellow Bleu Adams about centering her advocacy work on the Navajo Nation.

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When she first started hearing reports about a deadly virus in February, Bleu Adams immediately worried about how it would affect her homeland on the Navajo Nation.

“I thought, ‘This is going to be bad. They’re telling us to wash our hands, but there are people who don’t have access to water,’” said the Arizona and Utah restaurant owner and entrepreneur.

Though the Navajo government eventually implemented some of the strictest stay-at-home and curfew orders in the U.S., COVID quickly spread due to the lack of infrastructure and communication. About 40 percent of the Navajo Nation residents lack running water. Cell phone reception can also be sparse, and there is little access to broadband internet. This spring, the Navajo Nation surpassed both New York and New Jersey for the highest COVID infection rate per capita. As of November, 11,828 people have tested positive for COVID and 581 people have died.

Foreseeing a devastating impact, Adams, a 2020 James Beard Foundation Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership fellow, started taking food donations in February. She then faced the challenge of delivering them to the largely rural 27,000 square-mile Southwest land base, which is about the size of Virginia, and covers parts of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Connecting with others on the ground via social media, Adams and several volunteers began dispersing much-needed personal protective equipment (PPE), including to health clinics where access to supplies was severely limited.

“It was imperative that we protect the community…protecting the public was a way to protect our businesses as well,” said Adams. Back in 2018, Adams established IndigeHub on the reservation, a business incubator to train Navajo entrepreneurs. Through Adams’s self-financed Blackbird Brunch Café, a shared restaurant space, IndigeHub members interested in becoming restaurateurs could get access to a commercial kitchen, refrigeration, and customer seating for $30 a day. The café, which was set to re-open in March after being closed during the winter, remains closed as the Navajo government continues to closely monitor the coronavirus.

As the pandemic continued, Adams connected with others in California and across the country to address the crisis in Indigenous communities. The network created Protect Native Elders (PNE), a volunteer charitable organization that has dispersed food, PPE, water storage containers, and other needed goods or services to more than 60 Indigenous communities from Mexico to Canada. Blackbird and Adams’s latest restaurant set to open in Provo, Utah, House of Frybread, both serve as warehouses for the donated goods. So far, close to $1 million in cash and in-kind donations have been collected through the PNE website.

“It is vitally important that we protect our most precious natural resources, our elders,” says Adams, in a video explaining the organization.

The all-volunteer organization continues to receive donations from several sources, which have included face masks, shields, and even school supplies. Food and supplies have also been distributed to those in Zuni Pueblo and the San Carlos Apache Nation, as well as the Tohono O’odham Nation whose members live across Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.

“The power and the beauty of it is when people come together. It’s the change that can happen in society when people come together and work together. That’s what this work is demonstrating,” said Dmitri Novomeiski, a PNE co-founder based in California.

As COVID rates continue to rise in the Navajo Nation and elsewhere in the country, Novomeiski said the network is now looking into longer systemic changes, such as addressing the lack of broadband and other infrastructure needs. PNE is also looking at supporting IndigeHub as a way to address food inequalities and access to food and economic opportunity.

“We are really dependent, not only on the federal government, but the Navajo government. We need to promote self-sufficiency if things are really going to change,” said Adams, who is also James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans committee member, “If we are going to open businesses on the reservation we need that entrepreneurial ecosystem. I’m a big believer in that when you’re helping your community you’re really helping yourself.”

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Kim Baca (Navajo/Santa Clara Pueblo) is a writer and entrepreneur in New Mexico. Follow her on Instagram at @kim_baca1 and Twitter at @kjbaca

The JBF Women’s Leadership Programs are presented by Audi, with visionary support from KitchenAid, GrubHub, and Edens and sustaining support from Enroot.