WHITERIVER — The Dedication of the W, honoring the 49 White Mountain Apache Tribal members who lost their lives to COVID-19, will forever be remembered by all who glance at the mountain east of Tribal Headquarters.

The 4-foot-wide white ‘W’ was repainted in their honor, and in a special dedication at noon on Friday, March 19, the community gathered to remember their lost loved ones and the emergency declaration which was issued by the Tribal council one year ago due to the pandemic.

Though most do not recall when the W was originally painted on the mountain, or when it actually faded, Whiteriver Community President Joni Shipp and her volunteer group have been wanting to repaint that W for quite some time. Dollars and manpower caused them to put the project on the back burner, but now it had a higher purpose.

Taking their idea to Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood who approved the idea, the group implemented a plan of action.

With the help of Lee-Gatewood’s Chief of Staff Jerry Gloshay, the Fort Apache Hot Shots and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Fuels Management volunteered to climb the mountain and paint the W. With that hard part handled, it was full speed ahead raising money and handling the event details.

The original date for the dedication was March 16, the date one year ago when the emergency declaration was issued. But, Mother Nature called a snow day so March 19 was selected as the alternate date.

Tribal departments and individuals pitched in to help with the costs and all members of the community were invited to speak.

The morning began with a prayer by Pastor Marty Paxon, a COVID-19 survivor himself, and then the hikers headed up the mountain to paint the W.

At noon Gloshay, filling in for the chairwoman who was detained due to Tribal business, welcomed the attendees. Reigning White Mountain Apache Queen Makanalani Pike was also present in her official capacity for the dedication.

The White Mountain Apache Tribal Police Department conducted the dedication in honor of their fellow officer Elmer Lamson who lost his life to COVID-19.

There was a period of silence for the 49 Tribal members who died of COVID-19.

District 2 Councilman Renaldo Dazen was in charge of the speakers and two people shared stories of their loved ones. Ina Ivens spoke about her father Nelson Ethelbah and Lamson’s Aunt Joyce Lupe spoke about her nephew Elmer Lamson.

It was a successful and binding event for the Tribe.

In the weekly Saturday Facebook live stream, “Live with Gwendena Lee-Gatewood,” Lee-Gatewood and Gloshay spoke of the event and Shipp’s desire to honor those lost to COVID in a reverent and respectful way using the W as an icon for the Tribe to always remember that loss.

Lee-Gatewood said the pandemic has taught the Tribe to always be prepared because you never know when you might have to go into lockdown; that family is more important and spending time with them should be cherished because time is something you don’t get back. She said no one was stuck at home, but we’re safe at home.

Lee-Gatewood said the pandemic challenged the Tribe but the people rose to the occasion and did what they had to do to protect each other.

“We were on a phone call this week with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema with EOC (Emergency Operations Center). She said, Chairwoman, the WMAT did such an outstanding job. It was just excellent in the way that the Tribe responded to COVID-19,” said Lee-Gatewood, adding that Sinema also said the Tribe was a model for others.

“That W, it will forever be in our hearts — what we have been through and the resilience of our people and the community effort — how we all came together to achieve something, and the W represents that — work, wisdom — we are forever grateful,” said Lee-Gatewood.

Gloshay added another word to the meaning of the W — wonderful.

“It took three days to accomplish that W,” said Gloshay. “The first day they had to scout, measure and survey the land. The second day they organized and put things together to get ready to paint. Third day, Friday, in the morning they painted. It took 30 gallons of white paint,” said Gloshay. “ The W is not just for Whiteriver. It is really more than that. You have to ponder and think and say why did they paint that all of a sudden. You tell them it is in memory of those that lost their lives.”

Shipp was elated with the outcome of the event. In a Facebook post where she thanked each person and department for their contribution she wrote, “The W is there because of you all! W — To the 49 WMAT members that lost their lives to COVID-19, you will always be remembered in the heart of your reservation.”

Reach the reporter at bbruce@wmicentral.com

Barbara Bruce is a reporter for the White Mountain Independent, covering arts and entertainment on the Mountain and the Pinetop-Lakeside town government.

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