Volunteer Returns to Home and Service at the Navajo Nation

Stacy Thacker

A member of the Big Water Clan finds community and the chance to serve within the four sacred mountains.

He watched his life and the world change as COVID-19 swept through his family, his community and the world. Then, Derrick Yazzie, a member of the Navajo Big Water Clan who was raised in Fort Wingate, NM, and the Navajo Nation, headed home to Gallup to be with his dad, whose cancer diagnosis had taken a turn. With his father admitted to the hospital, Yazzie could only watch from afar as his dad’s illness progressed.

“My dad passed a week after lockdown went into effect,” Yazzie said, “He was not doing very well in March of 2020 and in that same week, the country went into lockdown, the world went into lockdown and so we couldn’t see my dad at all, except through windows and over the phone conversations and FaceTime.”

With everything swiftly changing around him, Yazzie felt the chaos of the pandemic. He planned to stay with his mom for a few months after his dad’s passing, but as time went on and as the virus shut down whole cities, Yazzie realized he’d be staying in Gallup longer than he anticipated. 

While he adjusted to being home in the fall of 2020, a childhood friend contacted him and asked if he’d be interested in working with Team Rubicon. Yazzie had never heard of the disaster relief organization, but after some research, he was excited to get to work. 

So, he picked up his camera and began serving with Team Rubicon as a photographer, documenting the work of different teams as they carried out their missions on the Navajo Nation. From April to July of 2020, and then again from August 15 to September 15 of ’21, Team Rubicon deployed more than 150 volunteers to serve alongside Indian Health Services. And, from December of ’20 to May ’21 Team rubicon returned to assist in the emergency room, and to help distribute more than 11,700 vaccines. Over the course of the three deployments, Team Rubicon assisted in distributing more than 12,400 vaccines and served more than 5,000 patients. 

Every week of the deployments, new volunteers—known as Greyshirts—from all over the country would arrive at the Navajo Nation. For some, it’s their first time in the Southwest. 

From time to time, Yazzie would also step out from behind his camera to work with Team Rubicon and the Navajo Nation to get information out about vaccines, as well as to share the Navajo culture and way of life with new Greyshirts in order to ensure they know what to expect. 

Working with different teams and people, Yazzie saw the selfless nature of volunteers who left their families in the middle of a pandemic to help the Navajo People and it really touched him.

Greyshirt Derrick Yazzie, in black, at the Navajo Nation.

“It is truly about putting your mind and your heart into helping other communities across the U.S.,” Yazzie said. 

When he left home years ago to experience life in California, he was caught up in the fast-paced lifestyle. It was meant for him and while he would come home to visit, it wasn’t the same as living there.

“Having my feet back here on the reservation was an experience that I probably wouldn’t have gone through had it not been for COVID,” Yazzie says. 

Working for Team Rubicon allowed Yazzie to reconnect with Navajo communities and Navajo people. It allowed him time with his mother to learn how to make fry bread and heal from the loss of his dad.

“Everyone has a different story and I think ‘oh my gosh, everyone has suffered in one way or another,’” he said of the virus and its impact. Many people have lost their family and their friends. Native communities have lost elders that hold keys to culture and language. 

It’s been a heartbreaking and chaotic journey for Yazzie but he’s slowly found his way. 

“My parents have always taught me, ‘do not forget where you come from,’ and ‘you are within the four sacred mountains of Navajo land’.” And, they taught him to be part of his community, and to give back to it. Then, within the horror of the pandemic, he found that chance to serve.

“I’ve been wanting to give back to the community of Gallup,” says Yazzie. “Through Team Rubicon, that was my doorway into this path; that would give me a chance to help—to help the people of the Navajo Nation in this area and Gallup.”

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