'It is also our tradition to protect our people,' the canoes will wait

Port Gamble S’Klallam raft together at Lummi Nation’s shores July 25, awaiting their turn to ask permission to come ashore during 2019 Canoe Journey. More than 100 canoes representing indigenous nations from throughout the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Pacific islands are at Lummi for the five-day cultural celebration. (Photo by Richard Walker)

Indian Country Today

Lummi Nation reports 16 cases; 190 cases so far in Indian Country * Updated Monday 10 pm MST

Another Monday. Another tranche of global COVID-19 cases on National Doctors Day. There are now more than 122,000 cases in the United States, resulting in 2,112 deaths. And in Indian Country there are 190 cases with at least 10 deaths confirmed.

The Lummi Nation in Washington state reported the sharpest increase so far this week. There are now 16 positive cases, 12 of them being Lummi citizens, and nine people who live on the Lummi Reservation. Two of the cases include members of the Lummi Business Council. The identified cases are likely to go up -- there are 22 more cases pending, according to the tribe’s public health department.

Two other tribes announced their first case. The Puyallup Tribe in Tacoma, Washington, reported an individual who is hospitalized and closely monitored but “not critically ill,” said Dr. Alan Shelton, the tribe’s clinical director.

“This patient’s close contacts will be notified to be on a 14-day quarantine,” Dr. Shelton said. “That someone in our community contracted this illness is not a surprise. We knew that at some point this would be in our community because there is no known immunity to this virus.”

This past weekend, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe and Mohawk Council of Akwesasne were informed of the first case in Akwesasne by the Franklin County Public Health Department.

They said the individual is a “community member, who is in quarantine at home and receiving follow-up care.” Two others are in self-isolation, too.

The tribe asks those who return to the community outside a 50-mile radius to self-quarantine for 14 days. “Please place the community’s health and safety as a priority, particularly those who are most vulnerable — our elders and those with underlying medical conditions.”

There are now 190 cases and 10 deaths from COVID-19 in the Indian health system, according to Indian Country Today’s database. As of March 29, the Indian Health Service counted 165. IHS’s data includes data from direct-service clinics. Tribal and urban Indian programs can report their data voluntarily to IHS. The data is sorted by IHS area, numbers tested, positive cases and negative cases.

* 

The number of positive tests on the Navajo Nation reached 148, according to the Navajo Department of Health and Navajo Area Indian Health Service, in coordination with the Navajo Epidemiology Center. There are now a total of five confirmed deaths related to COVID-19.

The 148 cases include the following counties:

Navajo County, AZ: 69

Apache County, AZ: 16 *changed due to clarification of one individual’s residency

Coconino County, AZ: 32

McKinley County, NM: 9

San Juan County, NM: 15

Cibola County, NM: 1

San Juan County, UT: 6

On Monday, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer met with health care officials and emergency responders who are working to fully establish a federal medical station to help fight the spread of COVID-19 in the community of Chinle, Arizona.

On Sunday, President Nez and Vice President Lizer spoke with the Federal Emergency Management Agency - Region 9 Administrator Robert J. Fenton to coordinate the mobilization of federal personnel to deliver much needed equipment including 58 beds, blankets, personal protective equipment, and other essential items at the Chinle Community Center. Chinle Unified School District Superintendent Quincy Natay and others were instrumental in making the facility available for use.

The National Guard is also working with the Tuba City Regional Health Care Center to provide some relief for medical staff and personnel while the Tuba City Chapter setup tent facilities on Sunday, at the local fairgrounds area to use as medical stations.

The Navajo Nation also issued a new Public Health Order to extend the current “Stay at Home Order” and implemented a curfew for the entire Navajo Nation that requires everyone to stay home ‪from 8:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m., seven days a week. It states that all individuals shall be at home during curfew hours except in the event of an emergency. 

Canoe journey

On Monday the Snuneymuxw First Nation announced that it will postpone the Tribal Journeys 2020: Paddle to Snuneymuxw.

“Tribal Journeys is a celebration of our identity, culture and unifies our Nations all around the Pacific Northwest. We know how important it is for us at all times like this to continue to pass our culture, practices and traditions, but it is also our tradition to protect our people and ensure everyone is safe when a threat like this pandemic faces us,” said Snuneymuxw First Nation Chief Mike Wyse in a press release. “Elders who guide and lead the Journey are especially at risk and we need to focus on supporting and protecting their health and well-being.”

The strategy ahead

Every tribe across the country has a different strategy. Some tribes have stringent shelter in place orders, limiting travel outside of the home to essential grocery shopping or for more reasons. (Allowing solitary walks near the home.)

Other tribes have pared down normalcy.

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority continues to operate services including those that deal with the public. On its Facebook page the company said it has closed some offices and reduced hours in others. And at its Choice Wireless it said as of today the stores will be closed for deep cleaning in the morning, followed by special hours for elders, and then a general opening.

“All of us on the Navajo Nation are in greater need of connectivity for news, work, and school now more than ever before​,” Choice NTUA Wireless said on its Facebook. “We have also seen a very large increase in requests for new broadband connections as many of us are forced to work from home or attend classes online. Please be patient as we work through these requests, we will get to you. Your internet connection is important and we understand just how much it is needed.”

While the utility continued its retail operation, the Navajo Nation Council Monday afternoon said it would go on the radio to get people to stay home.

Navajo Council Speaker Seth Damon said: “My office has been working around the clock to ensure a solid response by the Legislative Branch of the Navajo Nation reaches the Navajo People. When it comes to the voices of leadership, we know our local Navajo communities respond to council delegates because it is our delegates that are in communities and on the ground day-in and day-out.”

“During this time of global pandemic, there is only one message Navajo leaders should be focused on sending out to our communities. For the Navajo Nation Council, that message is that every Navajo person has the power to change the progression of this very harmful virus,” said Council Delegate Thomas Walker, Jr. “The Navajo Nation Council has been giving information to local chapter communities from the beginning of this ordeal, and we’ll continue to be pushing forward to gain support for our people.”

As of Monday, partnerships were established by the Office of the Speaker with four regional media companies and sister stations that span more than 13 call signs across the entire Navajo Nation. This vital investment in public awareness will further the Navajo Nation’s efforts in warding off the most extreme effects of the contagion curve associated with COVID-19.

Crow Chairman A.J. Not Afraid said on a Facebook video that people who are not from the community should not come into the tribal territory. He said there are no cases on the Crow Reservation. If someone is from Maine, he said, they should stay on the Interstate “but you cannot stay on the Crow reservation without any family or ownership within the reservation. So we do have people who are coming with campers” and so the tribe “kindly asks them to keep moving on down the road.”

Indeed, rural communities are at risk from people coming from the cities to get away from the virus.

Data compiled by Johns Hopkins University shows that 1,297 counties have no confirmed cases of COVID-19 out of 3,142 counties nationwide. The number of counties without a positive coronavirus case has declined rapidly, dropping from over half as the Associated Press was preparing to publish. Of the counties without positive tests, 85 percent are in rural areas — from predominantly white communities in Appalachia and the Great Plains to majority Hispanic and Native American stretches of the American Southwest — that generally have less everyday contact between people that can help transmit the virus.

At the same time, counties with zero positive tests for COVID-19 have a higher median age and higher proportion of people older than 60 — the most vulnerable to severe effects of the virus — and far fewer intensive care beds should they fall sick. Median household income is lower, too, potentially limiting health care options.

A green light to fight tribes, the environment?

Is the coronavirus epidemic a green light for state and federal agencies to get a free hand in their disputes with tribes?

The governor of Oklahoma said tribes should end the litigation against the state and agree to new compacts because it will show unity during the pandemic. The Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association quickly responded: “We are dismayed Governor Stitt would exploit the current pandemic for these purposes,” OIGA said. “Consistent with the advice of public health professionals, the tribal governments have suspended gaming operations to help blunt the spread of COVID-19. Nothing is more important to the Tribes than working together to fight this deadly virus.”

But it’s as if the pandemic opened an opportunity. The Interior Department issued a Record of Decision to take Mashpee tribal lands out of trust. The agency said it was acting on a court order. The agency said: Although a rare occurrence, the United States has previously been required to take land out of trust, most recently in April 2019, pursuant to a federal district court decision in California.”

But another court also ruled in favor of Standing Rock against the Army Corps of Engineers. That order now requires the Trump administration to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement.

And last week the Environmental Protection Agency said it “will exercise the enforcement discretion” because of the pandemic. The agency said it’s free pass was necessary because the agency did not want to put its employees at risk for enforcement.

In New Mexico, archaeologists, historians and environmentalists are joining New Mexico's congressional delegation and a coalition of tribes in asking federal land managers to grant more time for the public to comment on a contested plan that will guide oil and gas development near Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

The federal government should wait until the coronavirus outbreak subsides to ensure the public has an adequate opportunity to participate, the groups have argued in a series of letters sent to the U.S. Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management in recent days.

A final decision on the proposed resource management plan would come without “adequate public engagement” and could be a violation of federal laws and guidelines, the coalition said.

Tribes, environmentalists and archaeologists all warn that unchecked development could compromise significant spots outside the boundaries of the World Heritage site.

While tribal leaders from outside the area want to halt drilling around Chaco, top Navajo Nation leaders have been more reserved as oil and gas provides a significant source of revenue for the tribe and for individual Navajo property owners. Navajo lawmakers recently voted to support a buffer around the park only half the size of the one outlined in federal legislation pending in Congress.

However the All Pueblo Council of Governors, which represents 20 tribal communities, said in its letter to federal officials that the public health emergency has forced the closure of many non-essential government operations and resources have been redirected to provide emergency services.

"For many, this means staff who would be directly working on federal administrative processes related to the (plan), including our tribal historic preservation officers and environmental department staff, are not available," said All Pueblo Chairman J. Michael Chavarria.

And now New Mexico is looking to resolve the Esther Martinez language litigation. And by resolve we mean the state doesn’t want to have to take any steps to improve the teaching of Native languages in the state.

“Pueblo leadership was blindsided and shocked with dismay to hear that the State of New Mexico has filed for a motion to dismiss the 2018 Yazzie/Martinez Landmark Education Lawsuit on the claim that orders have been sufficiently met,” according to a news release from the All Pueblo Council of Governors. “The most unsettling for Pueblo leadership, is this legal move coming at a time of sheer uncertainty during the critical State of Emergency each Pueblo has declared and as the state and nation respond to one of the most challenging times in history.”

“The State has a long way to go to comply with the Court’s ruling that found New Mexico’s education system constitutionally insufficient,” wrote Chairman Chavarria., “The current circumstances only make the situation worse and hearing that the State has no regard for what our communities are faced with during a state of emergency is disheartening. Our Native children deserve justice and the right to an equitable education, similar to the one afforded to non-Native students. This means complying with the NM Indian Education Act as well as other laws that require a culturally responsive curriculum, a well-trained teacher workforce, language preservation, appropriate consultation with tribal communities and especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic, broadband infrastructure.”

The All Indian Pueblo Council has called for “meaningful collaboration” on culturally relevant curriculum. It said the governor should “reconsider” her legal challenge and instead “engage in government-to-government discussion with the Pueblos to solve the issues.” The main contention is that New Mexico needs to spend more on education “sufficient enough to provide Native children and generations to come with an education that results in a decent paying job, a prosperous life, and a personal sense of academic achievement without compromising Native languages and culture.”

Tokyo Olympics

The Tokyo Olympics have been rescheduled to start on July 23, 2021. The International Olympic Committee Executive Board said they want to protect the health of athletes and everyone involved.

The Olympic Games will run from July 23, 2021 until August 8, 2021. The Paralympic Games will start August 24, 2021 and end September 5, 2021.

Regional shutdowns

Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia issued stay-at-home orders today. Residents are allowed to perform essential activities. In D.C. violators will face criminal penalties like 90 days in jail and $5,000 fines.

Arizona also ordered its citizens to stay at home until the end of April. The exceptions are buying groceries, working at essential posts, or for medical reasons. Arizona has now surpassed 1,000 cases with at least 20 deaths.

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Typically there would be at least one car parked in front of My Bookkeeping Place, a tax preparation business on the Hopi reservation but it's closed due to the pandemic which has also pushed back the filing deadline to July 15th. Photo courtesy Marvin Yoyokie

Sudden stop for taxes

It's the end of March and Marvin Yoyokie, Hopi, is outside cleaning his yard, rearranging things and feeling the crisp spring air at his home in Kykotsmovi, Ariz. This is not normal. Normally Yoyokie would be inside his office preparing taxes for his clients but COVID-19 put a sudden stop to his business.

The Hopi Tribe ordered all non essential businesses to close on March 16th and then the U.S Treasury Department announced it was pushing back the deadline date to file income taxes. So now, instead of an April 15th deadline, tax payers have until July 15th to file federal income tax.

Yoyokie opened his company, My Bookkeeping Place in 1999. He serves mostly Hopi and Navajo individuals and businesses. He says he never thought the tax deadline would be pushed back like this.

"No! No, never. Never. Nothing has impacted us like this. We had SARS but nothing like this. People are told to stay home and I've never encountered anything like this."

He says educators usually rely on their tax refund to get them through the summer months and so they wait until the deadline to file. Now, they can't meet in person to file their taxes. "They are calling and they want to file their taxes."

The CARES Act will help those people. Checks will be mailed to individuals based on their latest tax filing status. So for those who have not filed 2019 taxes, Yoyokie says the government will use the information on their 2018 taxes. Most of his clients also use direct deposit so he expects they will get CARES money quicker than a refund.

"The majority of my clients have already filed and I'm expecting 100 or more would have filed before April 15th," he said.

Yoyokie has a secure encrypted website which will allow him to file on-line for clients who also have internet at their homes.

"Hopefully by May we'll have a good idea of what's happening." His last in person appointment was in the first part of March.

Since then he's done a lot of spring cleaning and checking for updates from the feds.

"I belong to the National Association of Tax Professionals and we get the updates, and I get my training through them too," he says. For now Yoyokie says it's just time to wait, and clean, until the stay at home order is lifted and the calls for social distancing are a thing of the past.

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Mark Trahant, Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Patty Talahongva, and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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