‘More connected than we know:’ Cree musician sending masks to Navajo Nation

LETHBRIDGE, Alta. — Jacob Faithful says he knew he had to do something when he learned a fellow member the Young Spirit music group and several of his relatives had fallen ill with COVID-19 in a hard-hit Indigenous community in the southwestern United States.

“My heart just sank and I was immediately frightened and not knowing what the outcome would be,” said the musician and businessman from Frog Lake First Nation in northeastern Alberta.

“I really started to question the systems that are in place and why isn’t there enough support around protecting our people?”

Faithful heads up Young Spirit, a Grammy-nominated drumming group that sings in Plains Cree and has members throughout the Western U.S. and Canada.

He also runs a sanitation supply company out of Lethbridge, Alta., which has been busy during the pandemic trying to get enough masks, disinfectant and other products to First Nations.

The Navajo Nation, which covers parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, has been hit particularly hard during the pandemic, with close to 7,000 cases and more than 300 deaths.

About a month ago, Faithful found out a group member, who doesn’t want his name published, had tested positive for the novel coronavirus along with his partner, step children and in-laws in Arizona.

Everyone has recovered, but Faithful said it was a scary time.

“It was pretty tough to see him go through that and to hear the struggle in his voice when I spoke to him on the phone,” he said of his friend. “Just to even put out words was a struggle for him.”

He said friends and relatives in the Navajo Nation have described a mental toll of isolation, with strict curfews and patrols in the community.

Faithful tried to figure out a way to leverage Young Spirit’s fan base, and his own business, into a way to help.

He reached out to Navajo artist Craig George and commissioned a piece to be printed on T-shirts. For each shirt sold, Faithful is sending five protective masks to the Navajo Nation.

The front of the black t-shirts have a vibrantly-hued painting showing a Navajo woman in profile wearing a mask and wrapped in a blanket. Within the blanket is a Young Spirit singer with a drum.

The back of the shirt says “#YS4Dinetah,” expressing the group’s support for the Navajo people.

“It ended up being pretty wicked,” Faithful said.

There were about 70 orders for the shirt as of Friday afternoon. Faithful already has silk-screening equipment set up in his home to make Young Spirit merchandise, and he figures he can bang out 150 shirts a day with the help of family members.

George’s painting is expected to arrive any day now, after which Faithful can scan it and get to shirt-printing.

“We found a way to be part of the solution for a struggling tribe,” he said.

“I want people to know that we’re a lot more connected than we really know. We’re a lot more connected to the rest of the world than we think we are.”

— By Lauren Krugel in Calgary

This story by The Canadian Press was first published on June 20, 2020.

The Canadian Press

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