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For 1st time ever, 2 Navajos are co-chairing the Aunt Rita’s Foundation’s AIDS Walk

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

For the first-time ever, two Navajos have been put at the helm of  Aunt Rita’s Foundation’s AIDS Walk, one of Arizona’s largest HIV-AIDS awareness gatherings. This year, their prominent inclusion also spotlights the importance of acknowledging this public health issue among the state’s tribal communities.

“Aunt Rita’s really respects the work of both sister ‘Navi Ho’ Eddie George and Trudie Jackson, our co-chairs,” said Stacey Jay Cavaliere, executive director of Aunt Rita’s Foundation. “They’ve done so much work for years and years, with the HIV community and beyond, and we’re just thrilled that they have agreed to be kind of our figureheads this year.”

Indian Country has long been disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS. CDC data shows that new HIV diagnoses among American Indians and Alaska Natives was more than double the rate of whites in 2021.

“It’s a huge opportunity to get the word out that, you know, AIDS, HIV doesn’t discriminate,” said local Diné drag queen Eddie "Navi Ho" George, who recently co-emceed the  Two Spirit Powwow in Phoenix. “Even though sometimes within our community, it’s a hush-hush thing, I believe it’s very important that testing happens, education happens on Native land.”

About 80 in every 100 Native Americans living with HIV know their status, the lowest rate among any demographic. 

These harder-to-reach populations residing in medically underdeveloped regions struggle with gaining access to services, so Aunt Rita’s Foundation has created an  HIV testing voucher program to obtain free HIV and STI laboratory tests for anyone living around Arizona — even on the remote reservations. 

“We have really seen a lot of uptick in some of the tribal and rural areas, because there just aren’t a lot of community-based agencies throughout those smaller communities,” said Cavaliere. “That’s really another way for folks in those communities to get access to that important testing, and treatment, if needed.”

Trudie Jackson, another co-chair, has been a long-time HIV-AIDS advocate in the Valley since 2004.

She used to work at the Southwest Center for HIV-AIDS as an underserved population prevention specialist in Phoenix. Among her many accolades, Jackson was also recognized with the Marty Prairie Award by the National Native American AIDS Prevention Center in 2008. 

“I think our advocacy has paid off, having two Natives as co-chairs, we’re able to be in that space. Our voice and our communities, not only the tribes that we represent, but all tribal Nations are represented at the table,” said Jackson. “And I think this will also send a message that HIV does impact tribal communities and tribal members, too, and therefore more funding be allocated to provide the adequate services.”

For Jackson, the event Saturday, April 6, is another milestone, but also a somber time. She’s remembering all of her friends and relatives who’ve died from this disease over the decades and “those that are still with us that are trying to fight and find resources, so they can stay alive.”

“Our work continues,” added Jackson, “until there’s no more HIV infections, and we’re able to find a treatment for this.”

If you go: Aunt Rita’s Foundation’s AIDS Walk, 9 a.m. Saturday, April 6. Tempe Beach Park, 80 West Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe. auntritas.org.

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.