Valentina Blackhorse, Navajo pageant winner with dreams, dies of coronavirus at 28

(Photo courtesy of Vanielle Blackhorse via The New York Times) In an undated image provided by Vanielle Blackhorse, Valentina Blackhorse. Blackhorse, the winner of one pageant after another in the Navajo Nation, who was known for helping others and nurturing political aspirations while raising her 1-year-old daughter, died at Kayenta’s health clinic on April 23, 2020, a day after she tested positive for the novel coronavirus. She was 28.

Albuquerque, N.M. • Valentina Blackhorse, the winner of one pageant after another in the Navajo Nation, was known for helping others. When the coronavirus began tearing across her reservation, she counseled family members to stay home, wash their hands and wear masks.

Then the virus somehow made its way into her own home in Kayenta, a town in the Navajo Nation near the sandstone buttes of Arizona’s Monument Valley. Her companion, Robby Jones, a detention officer with the Navajo Department of Corrections, caught COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

“She cared for him until she got sick herself,” her sister Vanielle said. “She was always that way, looking after others.”

When Blackhorse came down with symptoms including shortness of breath and back and knee pain, she went for a test. The results came back April 22 and showed she was positive. A day later, Blackhorse died at Kayenta’s health clinic, where Jones had taken her after she had difficulty breathing, her sister said. She was 28.

Blackhorse, who worked as an assistant at the Dennehotso Chapter House, an administrative office, was among the Navajo Nation’s youngest and most prominent pandemic victims, and her death stunned many among her people. The reservation was already grappling with one of the deadliest outbreaks in rural America, with 1,977 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 62 deaths from the infection as of Thursday, authorities said.

Blackhorse was born Sept. 2, 1991, in Tuba City, Arizona, to Danny and Laverne Blackhorse. Her father was a coal miner, her mother a cook.

A former Miss Western Navajo, she had also previously held the titles Miss Monument Valley High School and Miss Diné College. She won those titles while starting a family and a career as a public servant, even as she grappled with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that might have heightened her risk of dying from COVID-19.

In addition to her parents, Jones and her sister Vanielle, she is survived by her 1-year-old daughter, Poet Bessie Blackhorse, and another sister, Victoria.

Vanielle Blackhorse said her sister had dreamed of entering politics one day, aspiring to become a delegate to the Navajo Nation Council or even president of the Navajo Nation, one of the largest tribal nations in the United States.

“But she accomplished her big dream by becoming a mother,” said Vanielle Blackhorse, whose own daughter is the same age as Poet Bessie. “She loved being a mom to her daughter. It came naturally to her.”