Cherokee woman roller skates 2,000 miles to raise money for water quality research on Navajo Nation

While Forrest Gump ended his continent-spanning run on a hill in the Navajo Nation’s Monument Valley in the 1994 film, Daisy Purdy’s own 2,000-mile journey began there — at least in spirit.

Purdy, a former roller derby player in Flagstaff, Ariz., laced up a pair of roller skates on June 15 in the Navajo Nation community of Lupton, Ariz., and started rolling east. Her goal: to skate all the way to the traditional lands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina, where she is from, in order to raise money for water quality research in the Monument Valley area.

The first day, Purdy covered 26 miles — the shortest of the entire two-month journey — slowed by cattle guards, tough road conditions and a lost support driver who was carrying a resupply of water and food.

As she crossed New Mexico and the Texas panhandle over the following weeks, paralleling Interstate 40 on back roads, the pace picked up, even if things didn’t exactly get easy. Purdy, 41, said she reached each new state along with heat waves and coronavirus spikes, and she was stopped by police 16 times in total, which often meant she had to reroute.

But she found a rhythm, often skating 50 miles or more before dawn and after dusk to beat the heat and inspired to keep going by her fundraising mission for a research project she was planning with her colleague Tommy Rock.

Purdy met Rock, a Diné water quality researcher who earned his doctorate studying uranium contamination in Navajo Nation water sources, at Northern Arizona University while she was working there as a lecturer.

“For a long time, I’ve been committed to finding resources to dedicate to Dr. Tommy Rock’s research,” Purdy said. “Ever since I met him … I was incredibly impressed with the way that he was able to approach Western science from a cultural perspective and not have to assimilate into a mainstream way of thinking in order to do scientific work that was really important to his community and the Navajo Nation and Indian Country more broadly.”

(Courtesy of Daisy Purdy) Daisy Purdy (left) recently roller skated from Arizona to North Carolina to raise money for Rock's research into potential links between water quality and COVID-19 on the Navajo Nation.

When the coronavirus pandemic reached its peak on the Navajo Nation in April, hitting it harder on a per capita basis than any U.S. state, Purdy and Rock recognized that more public health data, especially from Indigenous researchers, was needed to respond to the pandemic.

Purdy, who runs the consulting firm Inclusive Community in Flagstaff and is currently working on her second PhD, was concerned with results from a Harvard University study that showed links between higher COVID-19 death rates and urban air pollution.

“Tommy had a hypothesis that a lot of the underlying health issues and high infection rates in certain areas were related to unregulated water sources,” Purdy said. “And so he wanted to do a big study looking at water sources, not just what the issue is, but also thinking in terms of how do you solve it.”

The pair began planning a cross-discipline water quality and public health research project on the northern Navajo Nation with an all-Indigenous team of academics, artists and journalists.

More than 40% of households on the Utah Navajo strip lack running water, and Rock said that many of the water sources where community members fill up water containers do not see regular testing.

“We want to train people on water quality and what to sample for,” Rock said, “and see if we can make those areas regulated watering points.”

Rock said there is naturally occurring uranium in many water sources as well as contamination linked to a century of vanadium and uranium mining on the Navajo Nation, but there are only a handful of studies looking at potential public health effects of water contamination in the area.

“Some of the people that I’ve known — some of my peers for undergrad and grad school — have been exposed, and some of them, unfortunately, passed away,” Rock, who is 44, said. “So there is that cause and effect there, but in terms of how many lives have been altered because of that, I don’t know.”

Purdy skated past her original destination earlier this month and went all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, where she arrived on Aug. 8. Her GoFundMe, Rollin’ for Rock’s Research, raised around $20,000 of its $80,000 goal along the way despite limited publicity for the trip, and she said she’s hopeful that the fundraiser will meet its target.

“We developed these solidarity skates [through RollerRock.org] that have been great,” Purdy said. “People can go out and roller skate on their own, get their own pledges from friends and family, and donate that money back. It’s a really cool way to connect people getting outside and getting active and to a broader network of folks.”

A group in California completed a 100-mile solidarity skate on Saturday, and others are planned across the country.

The outreach efforts have meant more computer and phone time since Purdy completed her journey, but she’s still found time to get out on her quads.

“I’ve been skating 10 or 20 miles every day,” she said.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.