Coronavirus has changed everything in Indian Country
Ernest Stevens, Jr.
Chairman National Indian Gaming Association
Native Americans have a deep connection to the land, our people, and the Creator. In a time of uncertainty, we pray that the Creator will guide us through adversity and that Mother Earth will sustain our people. With these thoughts at the top of their minds, tribal leaders throughout Indian Country are making difficult decisions to protect our children, our communities, and our future.
Fifty years ago, a group of visionary tribal leaders paved a path to economic development to provide a life for our children. They set out on a new path to open our Indian lands to visitors through hospitality. That brought us full circle because our Native people have extended our hospitality to our non-Native neighbors from the time of the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock. Indian gaming was the vision that our tribal leaders had: The New Buffalo to provide jobs, to build schools, to build hospitals, and provide child care, restore our cultural centers. A job and a living wage for those in our community and our neighbors. Indian gaming generates 315,000 jobs directly and more than 700,000 jobs in total when indirect impacts are considered.
The onset of the coronavirus has changed everything. The virus has challenged health care systems to the brink of capacity, emptied public spaces, and is actively crashing economies on a global scale.
No one has escaped the impacts of COVID-19, and Indian Country is no exception. All 12 Indian Health Service regions report confirmed cases of persons testing positive for the coronavirus. Some of the hardest-hit areas of Indian Country include the Navajo Nation (813 cases as of April 13), the Pueblo of San Felipe (54), Pueblo of Zia (31) and the Tohono O'odham Nation.
The coronavirus threatens Indian Country more than other populations. Far too many Native Americans are susceptible to this virus because of existing health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and asthma. But the trigger for spread of the virus is the lack of housing on Indian lands. With multiple generations of families living under one roof, this virus poses a unique challenge to tribal leaders nationwide.
In addition to the direct health threats, the pandemic is inflicting economic distress throughout Indian Country. As early as the first week in March, tribal leaders began ordering the closures of Indian gaming, hotel, and hospitality operations to help stop the spread of the coronavirus and to protect the safety of employees, guests, and communities. These decisions were difficult, were made with the safety of our people at the front of our minds, and the tribal leaders have to be commended.
Our tribal leaders have since gone beyond operation closures, implementing curfews, suspending all non-essential travel, postponing our important events and large gatherings, all to keep our people safe. Striving to become still is the new normal throughout Indian Country.
The coronavirus has triggered the worst unemployment crisis in the history of our nation – and, again, Indian Country is no exception.
Without a tax base to generate governmental revenue, Indian tribes rely on government-owned enterprises to generate revenue for essential services to Native communities across Indian Country in the form of health care, education, public safety, housing, and social services.
Although tribal government gaming operations are closed, tribal governments and government-owned entities continue to face financial obligations to retain our employees so that they can provide for their families during this crisis. Many also continue to face financial obligations of governing and to keep tribal government-owned enterprises viable – so that our workers have jobs to return to when we defeat this pandemic.
This is where the National Indian Gaming Association has stepped up in partnership with our sister tribal organizations on the national and regional levels. While our Indian Gaming headquarters are closed, we remain steadfast in our mission to support Indian Country. We have continued working every day focused on the health, well-being, and economies of tribal citizens as our core concentration. Throughout these times, our team has been on the frontline, working to ensure that all of Indian Country has the resources needed to fight the virus.
As we join our sister organizations in Washington, D.C., to work on the federal front, it is so enriching to know that it is in times like these that we are reminded of what tribal communities are made of – that is, the power to support each other, and to bring others close even when we forced to be apart physically.
The CARES Act acknowledged the importance of tribal government owned-entities – like Indian gaming operations – wholly owned and operated by federally recognized Indian tribes. The Act recognized and respected the constitutional status of tribes as governments by including Tribal Governments, along with state, local, and territorial governments in the Act’s Coronavirus Relief Fund. However, much work remains regarding the implementation of the Act to ensure that tribal governments have the flexibility to use the resources to address local needs on the ground.
While the Relief Fund will help, tribal governments also need coverage for the hundreds of thousands of employees that our Tribes are keeping on and those whom we must lay-off, and lost revenues in terms of our tribal government gaming, tax, and business revenue.
Senate Majority Leader McConnell proposed $280 Billion to replenish the SBA Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Democratic Leader Schumer and Speaker Pelosi are pushing to replenish the SBA PPP and replenish the State-Local-Tribal Coronavirus Relief Fund, among other things. At the same time, the National Governor’s Association is pressing for a $500 Billion to authorize state governments to recover “Lost Revenue” and other purposes. As Congress replenishes the State-Local-Tribal CRF Fund, we will once again work with NCAI and our member tribes to ensure that tribal governments receive a 5.33 percent Tribal Set-Aside for tribal governments.
Under the Indian Self-Determination Policy, Indian tribes must make our own decisions concerning the right scope of programs to address COVID-19. We can rely on the wisdom of our elders, our visionaries like we did when gaming first got off the ground. Congress should instruct the agencies to defer to tribal governments on the nature and scope of programming and use of the necessary emergency aid. In the next bill, Congress should include our treaty rule of statutory construction: ambiguities resolved in favor of Indian nations.
The CARES Act created the Paycheck Protection Program to provide small businesses (less than 500 employees per location), including “any” tribal businesses, forgivable loan funding to pay employees during the National COVID-19 Emergency. However, implementation of the Program has been unsteady. SBA imported its standard operating procedures to close the door to any businesses that generates a third or more of its revenue from “legal gambling.”
That was contrary to the CARES Act’s express terms where it says “any” tribal business – under the title of “Increased Eligibility for Certain Small Businesses and Organizations.”
At the National Indian Gaming Association, we are working with our member tribes and the NCAI to get Paycheck Protection for our small tribal gaming businesses. Our member tribes received dozens of letters of support from Senators, Congressmen, and State Governors.
Small tribal gaming businesses are often primarily job creators. Many times, although we are small business, tribal gaming is among the largest regional employers. We need Paycheck Protection to forestall even more severe economic injury to our small tribal operations.
The National Indian Gaming Association has called upon Treasury and SBA to fix that by removing this barrier to all tribal gaming operations that meet the employee requirements so that they can retain or re-hire their people, help put food back on their tables, and maintain these workers’ ties to Indian Country – so that when we do defeat this pandemic, we can more quickly get up and running.
If there was ever a time in our lives where we need to stand firm together, it is now. We must all be committed individually to doing our part to help lessen the curve and bring us forward to a new normal to rebuild upon for our families, communities, and Indian Country.
I assure you that throughout the pandemic, the National Indian Gaming Association has and will continue working closely with our Member Tribes and sister organizations and continue to advocate for Indian Country.
Our prayers for strength go out to all our tribal leaders as they lead their tribal communities through these times. We also pray for the families who have lost loved ones to this virus, and prayers for health and safety for all on the frontlines providing essential, protective, and medical services.
We will get through this – apart – but working together. Thank you.
Ernie Stevens, Jr. is the chairman and national spokesperson for the National Indian Gaming Association in Washington, D.C. Stevens is currently in his ninth two-year term as the organization’s leader, which is a position elected by the member tribes of the National Indian Gaming Association.
As chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, Stevens represents the Indian gaming industry. In this role, he has worked to educate Congress, the media and the public about the positive impacts of Indian gaming on tribal and nearby communities. Stevens is also responsible for shaping policy initiatives that have the potential to impact the industry. Stevens has led the Association and worked to protect Tribal Sovereignty and strengthen the Indian gaming industry. During his tenure, Indian gaming revenues have risen from $11 billion in 2000 to over $39.1 billion in 2018 making Tribal Government Gaming the largest segment of the Gaming Industry in the United States, passing Commercial Gaming.