A founding member of Protect Native Elders, Sicangu Lakota tribe member Jo Overton jokes her title could be “Patron Saint of Hand Sanitizer.” Her actual working title is “Indigenous Outreach Coordinator,” which only hints at what a powerful connector she is. Jo works with unstoppable persistence connecting volunteers together, and connecting Native Americans at severe risk of COVID-19 to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), water, and other critical supplies.
Despite health issues which keep her homebound for the pandemic, in March 2020 Jo responded to news of the coming crisis with fierce determination to help. She explains, “I’m not Navajo but have Navajo friends. My reservation was fine but I’m not going to let my Native American brothers and sisters die, so I did something.”
Jo started by making masks, then reached out to Tyrone Whitehorse, a friend of a friend (and a Navajo man with an MPH) she heard was distributing masks in Navajo Nation, and Protect Native Elders took off from there. In less than 3 months, PNE has delivered over $300,000 worth of PPE and other necessities to over 60 sites and many tribes across Indian Country.
How does such rapid growth of a project happen? It can’t be fully explained by credentials like Jo’s bachelor’s degree in social work or her experience running a non-profit for Native American foster children (Jo fostered children for nine years, as well as being an adoptive and biological mother). Part of the magic of Protect Native Elders is the depth of Jo’s drive to serve all people in the Native American community, which was instilled in her from a young age, as she explains is usual in Native culture. Jo says, “My goal in life is to be just like my mother. She was a voice for the voiceless and protection for the vulnerable always.” Jo’s mother helped change her tribe’s constitution as well as their domestic violence code.
In Jo’s case, serving indigenous peoples means inspiring youth to protect their elders (and themselves) from COVID-19 with the motto “Stay healthy to keep your elders healthy.” It means calling someone five times a day to catch them in order to expedite supplies. It means passing on traditional values and skills to her twelve grandchildren because her grandchildren “mean the whole world to me.” Most of all it means overcoming adversity by uniting all of us willing to work in partnership and cooperation to weave together a better future. As Jo says, “We’re on a golden path, and then a golden ribbon comes down and we braid it into the road. It happens all the time. We reach this place where we’re at an impasse and then there it is that golden ribbon. I can’t, you can’t, WE can and WE are.”