'We sounded the alarm' about Navajo Nation months ago ... and the federal government failed

Joaqlin Estus

Time to create a system where no one in 'federal system can put Navajo Nation or any sovereign nation in harm's way again'

Joaqlin Estus

Indian Country Today

 New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says she will help make sure that voters know about the potential benefits of electing Joe Biden as president. Especially voters in Indian Country and in the Hispanic communities.

Asked Wednesday at an online news conference whether she would accept a potential invitation to run for vice president in November, Lujan Grisham said she is completely dedicated to her job as governor but also will provide specialized support to Biden's presidential campaign.

“I do want minority voters to know what the benefits of a Biden presidency can be and what those values are: health care, education, a strong economy, equality, dealing with productive immigration reform, all of it,” Lujan Grisham said. “And that will be my job during the upcoming primary primary and the general election.”

New Mexico has the nation's highest proportion of Hispanic residents — many tracing their local ancestry to the era of Mexican and Spanish rule. Native American's make up nearly 11 percent of the state population.

Lujan Grisham, a former three-term congresswoman and state health secretary, has put New Mexico on an aggressive lockdown as the coronavirus arrived in New Mexico and has vowed to only reopen the economy if the state meets milestones in limiting and tracking the contagion's spread.

Lujan Grisham acknowledged “flattering news” about the recruiting process for vice presidential contenders.

“There is flattering news about a variety of incredible women around the country, and I appreciate the recognition of the work that we’re doing in the state and my experience,” said Lujan Grisham, highlighting her status as a Democratic, Latina governor.

The New Mexico governor sharply criticized the federal government Wednesday on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show. Grisham said she’s troubled about the high rates of COVID-19 on the Navajo Nation.

“Coronavirus also took more lives per capita in Gallup, New Mexico than anywhere else in the country and that is partly a function of how fast the virus is spreading near Gallup, but it may also be partly because of how hard it is to get healthcare there,” host Rachel Maddow said.

Grisham, a Democrat, said the three hospitals in the area had anticipated the outbreak but have struggled to keep up. They are shipping critically ill patients to larger medical centers in Albuquerque and other cities. “So that's always been part of our plan … [but] some days we were seeing two patients transferred an hour from the Northwestern part of the state."

Grisham said, “what's going on is the Navajo Nation, and we sounded the alarm to the White House months ago about the impact on sovereign nations, lack of testing by Indian Health Services, which I'm going to really defend them. The federal government's not giving them what they need either. It long underfunded Indian health.” Of Rear Admiral Michael D. Weahkee, Zuni Pueblo, who heads the Indian Health Service, Grisham said, “…he's incredible.”

The problem she said is, “You have intergenerational families living hundreds of miles from food, water, healthcare services, just the basics. You've got children and elders and working family members in very tight quarters, which is ripe for having containment issues that you can't get your arms around.”

She went on to say, “I want to give a shout out to the Navajo Nation. Both the Council and the Navajo Nation president have been good partners and really effective leaders by having some of the strictest stay-at-home orders and curfews in the country. And we're seeing a flattening in Gallup and in Kinley County and in San Juan County as a result. And we're seeing the transmission rate finally beginning to decline. But we are not out of the woods in Indian Country around this country, in Indian Country in New Mexico and not in the Navajo Nation either.”

She said the state of New Mexico and Navajo Nation are asking the federal government to “Give us the testing supplies. And when I say us, the state, let us at our state lab do the testing because here's what happens -- and give us some personnel to do that -- we can increase the testing in the Navajo Nation. We can increase the testing in all of our pueblos and Apache nations. We can turn those tests around in incredible amounts of time, which means that we can then support directly the contact tracing.”

As it is now, she said testing supplies are slow to arrive and they don’t have enough. Tests go to labs the federal government has contracted with and New Mexico gets in line with other states seeking test results. She said it takes up to four days to get test results. Meanwhile, a person, sometimes asymptomatic, is continuing to go about their business and spreading disease.

“That means no one gets isolated. Nobody's getting contact tracing. None of that is happening in a way that's meaningful, nor have they [the federal government] invested in the right personnel to beef that up.”

Grisham said New Mexico has doubled the number of people tracing contacts, and has the capacity to do much more.

“We want to just take control, with IHS as a partner, of the whole thing.”

“We're also going to give cell phones out to everyone we test. We're going to work with telecommunications companies, to put towers out so that we can do contact tracing because we can reach people who do not have a cell service or internet connection,” Grisham said.

She said, “We need broadband, water, and electricity and public safety emergency response investments in the Navajo Nation and they're going to get it. Because we're clear -- as a state, we have a responsibility to meet the shortfalls of the federal government.”

Grisham said, “We need to do everything in our power to disrupt the lack of federal response and support to protect our sovereign nations in New Mexico. And we're going to keep fighting to slow the spread, to support the Navajo people, to support the president and vice president of the Navajo Nation and the Council.

“And we're going to get a hold of this virus and we're going to create a system where no one in the federal government can put the Navajo nation or any sovereign nation in harm's way ever again,” Grisham said.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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