Tribal leaders to meet virtually with New Mexico governor

San Felipe Pueblo Gov. Anthony Ortiz and his administration speak virtually to reporters during a Monday press conference. (Screenshot from press conference)

Aliyah Chavez

Leadership from New Mexico’s 23 tribal nations to discuss the coronavirus and its impact on their communities at annual summit Tuesday

Aliyah Chavez
Indian Country Today

Leaders from New Mexico’s 23 sovereign nations will meet virtually with the state’s governor and her administration during a daylong Tribal Leaders Summit on Tuesday.

In a rare media appearance, governors from San Felipe and Acoma Pueblos joined the state’s secretary of Indian Affairs for a virtual news conference Monday to discuss the event, which will be closed to the press.

They said topics will largely include the impact of the coronavirus on health, education and the economy, along with an eventual recovery.

In May, Native Americans in New Mexico accounted for nearly 60 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases, despite making up only 11 percent of the population.

“Tribal communities in the state have been hit very hard,” San Felipe Pueblo Gov. Anthony Ortiz said. “Our priority as tribal leaders is to ensure we safeguard our traditions and our future by protecting our most vulnerable: our elders and our children.”

The state’s tribal population is made up of 19 pueblos, three Apache nations and part of the Navajo Nation.

In Acoma Pueblo, an hour from Albuquerque, Gov. Brian Vallo said his community was able to keep its case count low for months.

This data was changing, however, much like the state and nation, which have reported record-breaking cases in the last few days.

“We are experiencing a surge and are very concerned about the forecasted increases in cases during the winter months,” Vallo said.

Earlier Monday, Vallo and his administration held a press conference to publicly oppose the Indian Health Services’ decision to limit services at a local hospital serving his community.

That, among other issues, is what Vallo hopes to discuss with the state’s governor Tuesday.

Education will also be a major conversation.

Both Acoma and San Felipe’s governors said lack of internet connectivity and availability of devices are a major barrier in educating their students.

Leadership from both communities support virtual rather than in-person or hybrid learning for their students.

San Felipe Pueblo says they’ve purchased and provided portable wifi packs, power and devices to their students, “but it’s not all that great.”

Ortiz says students continuously received bad to little internet connection in their pueblo.

He said he felt “incredibly challenged'' navigating education, saying he was approached by the local school district to decide whether to send students back to school on a hybrid learning model.

Ortiz ultimately decided to keep his students home to continue virtual learning.

“Losing one or two tribal members, I lost a lot. Nobody is going to replace them for me,” Ortiz said. “So I had to protect my people, and my children, my students by not approving hybrid learning.”

Ortiz said he wishes school districts and tribal nations could work together to figure out how to best help each other.

Before the coronavirus began, pueblo leadership met once a month at All Pueblo Council of Governors’ meetings in Albuquerque.

Despite the separation, the governors said caring for each other and praying for one another has been a key component of managing the virus.

Vallo cited sharing case data with one another, strategizing and even collaborating to offer services for citizens.

“And sometimes we call each other just to vent, just to gain encouragement,” Vallo said. “It’s powerful when I can reach out to another Pueblo governor just to be heard, to express my feelings and to gain some insight, support, advice and encouragement.”

Ortiz rang the same sentiment and hope for Tuesday’s meeting.

“It is our hope, as tribal leaders, that we continue to work together, not just in times of need, but also in times of prosperity. It is our belief that we will flourish when we come together to achieve great things,” he said.

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Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today. Follow her on Twitter: @aliyahjchavez or email her at achavez@indiancountrytoday.com.

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