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  • Mary MacCarthy

Native leader explains why Covid-19 is such a threat to her communities

Updated: May 6

She's one of the leading indigenous voices of her generation: 28 year-old Kelly Holmes is the founder and editor-in-chief of the only magazine that features Native fashion.

Since launching the magazine in 2012, Kelly has become one of the leading Native voices of her generation. Photo credit: Viki Eagle/Real Life Indian

Kelly grew up on a Lakota reservation in South Dakota and moved to Denver when she was a teen. She started working as a fashion model, but soon had grander goals: she was just 21 when she launched Native Max magazine, which features only Native models, photographers, and fashion designers. Kelly's annual fashion show - Native Fashion in the City - has also established itself as a major annual cultural event.


I had the opportunity to profile Kelly a few years ago for a television report, and this week I reached out to hear after hearing that Covid-19 was hitting Native communities hard. She gave me her insights on some of the challenges that indigenous communities in the U.S. are facing when it comes to the pandemic.


HOW ARE YOU GETTING BY? We all knew that as soon as we had coronavirus cases on our reservations, it would be bad.

In February, I was doing a lot of in-person work in other states, on the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho and the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana - doing auditions for our big spring fashion show.


As the virus started getting closer and closer to the U.S., people were asking me - are you still going to have the show?


I said, if we have to postpone it we will. One of my big concerns was that I didn’t want people to come to the show, with the risk they could get the virus and bring it back to the reservations.


Those of us who live in urban areas, off-reservation, we’ve been telling our families to be careful, and keeping them up to date on what we’re hearing.

For our communities, the virus is a struggle in so many ways. The media is telling everyone to prepare, to stock up on food and water and cleaning products for at least two months. Well, what happens on the reservations is, there is just one grocery store, usually smack-dab in the middle, and everything sold out immediately


So then people started going to the closest grocery stores that are off the reservation, and quickly those started selling out too.


So it's impossible for them to just stay home. They have to go out and search for the stuff they need.


Another factor is that we’re very communal-based. We live in huge groups. Usually 5-6 people, and up to 10 people, per house. When someone comes back sick, chances are that all those people will get sick.


And of course, we’re dealing with the low level of health care that we already get at our IHS [Indian Health Service] hospitals. The lack of PPE is just one of the many inadequacies of our healthcare.

So far in our communities, the Navajo nation been the most affected by Covid-19. There’s also been an outbreak among the Pueblo, in New Mexico. One of our team members in Wyoming said there’s been a few cases in her tribe, on the Wind River reservation. And as we speak, there was a first case announced on my reservation, the Cheyenne River in South Dakota.


When I heard about the young Navajo woman - Miss Western Navajo Nation - who died from Covid this week, it gave me pause. I didn’t know her personally but of course I knew of her. I'm always so sad when one of my people die, and especially someone young - she was just my age, 28.


The thing with the pandemic is, no one has gone through this before, not even my mom.


With anything in the past that I’ve experienced, I’ve always been able to turn to my mother for advice - even when I separated from my children’s father last year, she was able to guide me through that.


But the virus, this is new for everyone.

For the magazine, the good thing is that we have always worked on-the-go, we’ve always been mobile. We have a team of five people scattered across the U.S., so we have always called-in to meetings and done video chats.


Native Max's March/April theme was "Mother Earth"

What has been affected is the business side. Advertisers are cutting back on their budgets, so that’s a challenge.


We’ve been brainstorming about how to adapt. We know that people are now spending a lot more time on the internet, so we’re going to increase and modify our online content to cater to that. On that note, we’re launching a major new project in June.


As for the hard copy of the magazine, we will still issue that bi-monthly. We published the March/April version just a little late, because a few contributors were struggling, and printing got delayed a bit.


We’re known for the high quality of our editorial photo shoots, so that’s one of the challenges now - due to the virus we can’t do our signature shoots.


Part of Kelly's mission is to promote Native brands - here @indigenous_cosmetics. Photo credit: VIki Eagle/Real Indian

I always have a long list of Native individuals I want to feature. What helps to narrow it down is that we work with themes. Our June/July magazine will be the “two-spirit issue” for Pride month. Last year we did a poetry issue, a love issue…


Our focus is fashion, but we do discuss other issues relevant to Native Americans. I increasingly make sure that this coverage is of positive people and positive stories - because when most media cover indigenous people, it’s just about the bad things that are happening. I’m not saying that we are all rainbows and sunshine. We deal with reality.


For example, in our latest issue we published an article about lack of access to clean water on reservations. It's been an issue since the 1950s, but it's getting worse - because for the Navajo nation for example, surface water is now drying up due to rising temperatures, and it's getting contaminated by nearby uranium mining. Our article focused on a nonprofit that several Navajo individuals work for. It's called Dig Deep and they're working to increase access to clean water by building wells and distributing that water in various indigenous communities. We show the problem, but we also highlight the Native individuals who are working to do something about the crisis.

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