WHITERIVER — It was March 12, 2020, when the White Mountain Apache Tribe issued an emergency declaration due to the increase in the spread of the coronavirus.

Four days later, WMAT employees were sent home from work to mitigate the spread.

Now, a year later, having lost 49 of its tribe to the virus, March 16 was chosen to remember those lost in a special ceremony labeled “Dedication of the W.”

The new time and date for the dedication is noon March 19.

Mother Nature claimed March 16 as her own with a special delivery of snow to the thirsty White Mountain region. Accepting the gift of moisture with gratitude, the Whiteriver community board changed the dedication date.

According to Whiteriver Community Board President Joni Shipp, for over three years the volunteer community group has wanted to paint the W back on the mountain east of tribal headquarters, across the river, in view. But, due to a lack of funding and not enough people to do the work, the project was delayed.

Though not sure of its origin, Shipp said that the W had just faded over time and by repainting it now, “it will bring it back to life as a way of honoring those who lost their lives to COVID.”

Earlier in the week, Shipp posted on Facebook a question many often ask when a significant anniversary date is approaching.

Her post said: “Let us take this moment to reflect and think about this time last year. Where were you? What were you doing? Everything is set for the repainting of the W. Now we wait ... we remember ... we pray. Because all the images you have seen, everything you have felt, everything you know and everything you remember will be stories passed down to your children’s children. ... you would have never guessed in a million years that we would all experience the same thing at once.”

Engaging the community in the “Dedication of the W,” Shipp and her board began with taking the idea to Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood, who readily endorsed the idea.

The next step was to engage those capable of hiking up the mountain to do the work.

“Nobody had been up the mountain and we did not know the safety and the health of it. It has been such a long time,” said Shipp.

Lee-Gatewood’s chief of staff, Jerry Gloshay, reached out to local forestry teams to see if they could help with the manpower and painting.

The Fort Apache Hotshots and the Bureau of Indian Affairs Fuels Management group said they would do it, and after clearance was obtained, they were ready to take the idea to the entire community for participation.

The Whiteriver Community Board was able to provide only breakfast and lunch for the hikers so they set out and collected donations — cash and snacks for the event.

Tribal departments got involved as well as those in the community who had lost friends and loved ones.

The WMAT court staffers, for example, contributed on behalf of their co-worker Julie Cooley who lost her life due to COVID-19.

And so it was with many others, and the list grew.

A breakfast was planned for the hiking team at 8 a.m. which did take place on March 16 at the Rick Lupe Building since it was already prepared before the event date had to be changed. Thirty-five breakfasts were served.

At 8 a.m. on March 19 the hikers will have snacks before they set out on their quest to repaint the W on the mountain.

There will be a morning prayer by Marty Paxson, a pastor who COVID-19 survivor himself.

A planned lunch for the hikers will take place at Hon-Dah resort after they return.

At noon, Lee-Gatewood will offer a welcome address to all in attendance.

The “Dedication of the Repainting of the W” will follow the welcome and will be presented by the WMAT Police Department in honor of the late Elmer Lamson, the department’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act compliance specialist.

A time of silence will also take place to remember all others who lost their lives to COVID-19.

District 2 Councilman Renaldo Dazen is in charge of the speakers. Shipp said an invitation was extended to all departments and others in the community who would like to speak.

White Mountain Apache Tribe queen Makanalani Pike will also be present at the dedication.

The event is not a traditional gathering, but will take place in the tribal headquarters parking area. Those attending are asked to remain in their vehicles and wear their masks at all times.

Ribbons that signify remembrance of those lost will be given out while supplies last.

Shipp acknowledged the invaluable help the Whiteriver community contributed for this dedication. She said her job was easy to execute because of the people.

“The credit goes to them. We do it together but it is the people who execute. It is because of them that it gets done. Though we are not yet out of the clear, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It is getting better,” said Shipp.

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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