Pandemic's harm to tribes is ‘damning consequence’ of federal inaction

Members of the Native American community of Picuris Pueblo, N.M., including Vaughn Tootsie, right, screen vehicles as they enter and exit tribal property April 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee, File)

Kolby KickingWoman

The Center for American Progress released a report highlighting how the federal government failed American Indians and Alaska Natives during the pandemic

Kolby KickingWoman
Indian Country Today

The federal response to COVID-19 in Indian Country has been lacking, leaving tribes to enforce their own policies that are often at odds with state governments.

According to the Center for American Progress, a liberal policy group, it’s been a failure.

Thursday, the organization released a report, “The COVID-19 Response in Indian Country: A Federal Failure.” The report highlights seven policy areas that would “address both the pressing coronavirus crisis and the structural inequities that have made Indian Country more vulnerable to health crises.”

The toll the coronavirus has taken on Native communities has been devastating.

In the introduction of the report, a few eye-popping examples are provided.

“Native people make up only around one-tenth of New Mexico’s population but more than 55 percent of its coronavirus cases; in Wyoming, AI/AN people are less than 3 percent of the state population but make up more than one-third of its cases,” the report reads.

The center also listed policy recommendations in seven areas: inclusion of American Indians and Alaska Natives in COVID-19 data, “developing executive branch infrastructure to address bureaucratic barriers,” tribal economies development, Indian Health Service underfunding, development of Indian Country’s infrastructure, support for tribal public safety and justice needs, and “restoring tribal homelands and supporting tribal ecocultural resource management.”

Tribes in Arizona have had to navigate spikes of the virus in the state since Republican Governor Doug Ducey ended stay-at-home orders and began a phased reopening of the state in the last month.

Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis signed an executive order Thursday making wearing a mask on tribal lands mandatory. Along with closing the casino for two weeks to ensure the health and safety of all tribal citizens.

“With positive tests for coronavirus continuing to spike in Arizona, I am determined to exercise an abundance of caution,” Lewis said in a statement.

While Arizona is among the states with the highest number of COVID-19 cases, Montana is among the lowest. Yet, even though the state has begun their own process of reopening, the Blackfeet Nation remains closed.

Currently, the tribe has a two-week quarantine period for non-residents that is set to expire at the end of the month, but that may be extended. The tribe’s reservation borders the eastern side of Glacier National Park and tribal officials have been in contact with the park as to when the eastern gate might open.

The tribe has yet to have a single case of coronavirus and despite losing money during a normally lucrative tourist season, no one tribal business wants to be the operation that brings the virus onto the reservation.

Similar to the Blackfeet Nation and Gila River Indian Community, Paiute tribes in Nevada have dealt with surrounding communities that undermined tribes’ efforts to contain the novel coronavirus.

The Walker River Paiute tribe established a curfew and placed a “no visitors” sign at its border, only to have the sign shot up.

In another incident, more than 100 cases of water were stolen by non-tribal citizens from the Yerington Paiute Tribe that was intended for tribal citizens due to the lack of access to clean water.

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Part of the report calls for the support of tribal public safety and its importance during a pandemic. Two ways the federal government could immediately provide assistance to tribes is passing the Violence Against Women Act and largely increasing funding for juvenile justice and justice systems alike.

Earlier this month, New Mexico House Representative Deb Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblo, and Democrat Senator of Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren called for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to update the Broken Promises report to reflect the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pair said an updated Broken Promises report would help hold the current administration and Congress accountable for failing to meet their trust and treaty obligations.

“The Broken Promises report is a groundbreaking, guiding examination of the federal government’s broken trust responsibility, but this pandemic has exacerbated disparities that have existed in Indian Country for generations,” Haaland and Warren said. “The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ study will be informative as we hold this Administration and the entire federal government accountable for mismanagement that continues a pattern of failures that put Native people’s lives at risk during this public health emergency.”

One thing is certain, the coronavirus is not going anywhere any time soon. Tribes, the United States and countries across the world alike are going to have to continue to be proactive in battling this crippling pandemic.

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Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

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