Volunteers prepare care packages for Full Circle Intertribal Center’s Stronghold program, which provides essential items and traditional foods to Moab-area Indigenous families. [Photo: Full Circle Intertribal Center]

When Full Circle Intertribal Center Director Kristen Ramirez-Marsh, a member of the White Mountain Apache tribe, first moved to Moab, she was surprised.

She immediately sought out Moab’s Indigenous community, searching for an intertribal center, and couldn’t find any such organization. Given Moab’s proximity to the Navajo Nation and various other Native American communities, she found the lack of representation strange. When visiting local Native American trading posts, she found non-Natives selling goods made in China.

“I’m coming from Arizona and New Mexico, where culture is really presented by us. I was looking for Indigenous wellness and kinship in Moab.”

When she didn’t find what she was looking for, she decided to create that community herself. FCIC, a Moab nonprofit founded in May 2019, endeavors to “nourish healing through our Native American traditions and cultures.” The organization’s board is composed of four Indigenous women with Ramirez-Marsh at the helm. They immediately got to work.

Full Circle has been working overtime on their Stronghold Program, a COVID-19 relief program that they began in March. They started out by making kits of essential items — bleach, masks, groceries and other supplies — for many matriarchs and elders living in Moab. The group has delivered approximately 600 supply kits since March and doubled its distribution in the past month.

The group had planned a large dinner for the community to recognize November as National Native American Heritage Month, but with COVID-19 restrictions in place and the importance of social distancing, the nonprofit decided to honor their elders with valuable traditional gifts instead.

“Elders are at high vulnerability. They can’t go grocery shopping because they’re older and a lot of our Native relatives have diabetes or heart conditions,” Ramirez-Marsh said. “So doing these kits has been a form of kinship that keeps us connected, because we like to take care of each other. We’re just making sure that all of our relatives are taken care of.”

FCIC purchased a pair of traditional moccasins made by Diné veterans for each elder and incorporated them into their usual supply kits. They also included costlier Indigenous foodways such as Navajo tea, blue roasted corn, sage, steam corn and other traditional items for every elder, supported by a $10,000 grant from The Synergy Company.

Before founding FCIC, Ramirez-Marsh worked as the Indigenous Community Specialist at Seekhaven in Moab — the first Indigenous person hired for the role in Seekhaven’s 30-year history. In the winter of 2019, FCIC held its first Nourishing Traditions Family Gathering in partnership with Seekhaven, where attendees shared traditional Navajo meals to sustain cultural vitality. From these meals, FCIC launched the Nourishing Traditions Women & Girls Circle Program as a space of safety and empowerment for Native American women. This past spring, FCIC began their Native Youth Alliance Program for young Native Americans to learn about and engage with their cultures.

That kinship that Ramirez-Marsh sought upon arriving in Moab has been prevented in many ways by the pandemic “because you can’t have that direct ceremony,” she explained. But FCIC has combated that disconnection with their COVID-19 relief kits and also by creating a Facebook group where community members can share their cooking, stories and language.

FCIC also received funding from the Navajo Nation through the CARES Act for rental and utility assistance. Many Indigenous people travel from Blanding, Bluff or even Arizona to work in Moab, often in Moab’s tourism and travel industry as hotel and customer service employees. When the pandemic forced hotels and businesses to close in March, many of these Native Americans were forced to file for unemployment. But using the CARES Act funds, FCIC has been able to pay the rent and utilities for 30 relatives for the past four months.

“We’re not about crippling our natives and making them dependent on government resources, but we are about Indigenous wellness, education and helping our youth learn who they are,” Ramirez-Marsh clarified. “But at the same time, during a pandemic, we’re going to do what we have to do to make sure that our relatives are able to be empowered after this is over.”

For Ramirez-Marsh, that empowerment also begins in schools. Some Grand County schools used to accept Title VII grants for “Indian Education,” which are designed to meet the cultural and academic needs of Native American and Alaska Native students in the United States.

However, to Ramirez-Marsh, “the education that has come out of that left a lot of other Natives picking up the work. It felt like we were working for free and fixing somebody else’s mistakes,” she said. “Hire a Native if you want Native education.”

Ramirez-Marsh hopes to address the lack of Indigenous representation in Moab that she experienced when she first arrived.

“It feels really good to be a Native-led nonprofit that can be an aid right now — for Natives from Natives,” Ramirez-Marsh said.

She has seen her organization’s membership jump from 10 to 60 since its beginning, and she sees FCIC only growing from here. The nonprofit currently hopes to procure land from SITLA to build a two-story hogan, which would serve as a cultural center for future Native American generations in Moab and the broader Four Corners area.

For Ramirez-Marsh, her work is just starting.

“FCIC has really made my life come full circle — being with all the matriarchs and Native women and watching Native identity development grow within our community. Our kids are becoming proud of who they are instead of just assimilating. It’s a really big deal.”

Throughout National Native American Heritage Month, FCIC and the rest of Moab’s Indigenous community will continue to celebrate their heritage, support one another through the pandemic and foster kinship and community across generations.

“It’s amazing how full circle it really comes with kinship — it’s one of the foundations of who we are as people,” said Ramirez-Marsh. “We are still here.”

Local Indigenous aid program expands