Native peoples were underserved before COVID-19, now it’s life or death

Jodi Archambault

COVID-19 is ravaging Native communities and yet the federal government continues to break promises first made in treaties

Jodi Archambault

Hunkpapa/Oglala Lakota

The world knows that Native peoples in the United States have been notoriously mistreated, deprived of what is rightly ours and subjected to cruel mockery in the face of deprivation. It is within the power of the dominant segment of American society to declare this dehumanization intolerable and to assure that it must not continue.

In this time of COVID-19, Native Nations are not only battling the spread of a pandemic, but also grappling with bad acts and inaction by the federal government. COVID-19 is ravaging Native communities and yet the federal government continues to break promises first made in treaties at the inception of the U.S.

Plundered lands, broken promises, unjust treatment under color of law — all combine to produce great disparities across socio-economic indicators. Native Americans face worse health, housing, income, and unemployment conditions than their white counterparts. 

Lower life expectancy and higher incidences of preventable diseases are common on reservations and can be traced back to poorly resourced treaty provisions; centuries of undermining Native health and wellness traditions, natural foods, and medicines; lack of funding for tribal health systems; and underfunding of the Indian Health Service.

As a result, American Indians and Alaska Natives born today have a life expectancy that is 5.5 years less than the average U.S. population.

Native Americans are the only U.S. population born with legally guaranteed health care, in treaties and statutory law, including the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which declares “that it is the policy of this Nation, in fulfillment of its special responsibilities and legal obligations to the American Indian people, to assure the highest possible health status for Indians and urban Indians and to provide all resources necessary to affect that policy.”

The Indian health law was made permanent in the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and a shameful number of federal and state politicians have attempted to dismantle or repeal it ever since enactment, which would leave Native American people more vulnerable than ever before.

Notwithstanding U.S. policy and law, the Indian Health Service is only focused on providing medical and emergency treatment. There are few public health programs that would be useful in educating about a pandemic and most reservations don’t even have a hospital. A 2018 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights noted that “the efforts undertaken by the federal government in the past 15 years have resulted in only minor improvements, at best, for the Native population as a whole.”

As a result of battling racism, benign neglect, and other deadly diseases of the past, Native Peoples began taking prudent emergency actions, including strict stay at home orders, to protect their citizens and residents from being overwhelmed by COVID-19. Before tribal per capita infection rates spiked to levels matching and surpassing the highest in the United States, some Native Nations, Tribes, and Pueblos used their treaties and sovereign powers as legal authority for closing their borders to all tourists and visitors.

Tribal initiatives were greeted with assistance and cooperation in most regions. Tribes in the upper Plains, however, were publicly challenged at the state level, where reasonable preventative measures were scoffed at and opposed, and President Trump threatened to cut the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s congressional funding to fight the pandemic unless it lifted its blockade.

At the same time, the administration withheld billions of relief dollars Congress appropriated for Tribes. While the CARES Act was being negotiated, the White House didn’t signal any priority of funding going to Native Peoples. And even after the crucial bill was passed to include $8 billion in funding, the Treasury Department dragged its feet for more than a month before releasing only some of the funds promised to Indian Country, and failed to release the remaining funds until late June.

With resilience born of necessity and long-garnered knowledge of their lands, Native Americans have proven to be self-sustaining and supportive of each other during COVID-19. While grocery stores can be miles away from the people, organizations are popping up to help families feed themselves. For example, “Seeds and Sheep,” a program in Utah created in response to the pandemic, mailed out 1,500 seed packets to households in the Four Corners region for planting and growing their own food. Over 300 reached out for support. — overshooting their goal of 100 families,

Still, the wrongs of the past continue to plague Native Americans today. Native Peoples are in crisis. People in Indian Country are dying. They’re dying because of hundreds of years of discrimination and maybe little can be done about that past, but unfairness and injustice in this time can be stopped, which will save lives. People in Indian Country are dying because the federal government, states, and businesses took Native land and resources and didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. But what can be done?

  • Live up to the treaties;
  • Obey the laws and spend what it takes to care for people and save lives;
  • Build and fund tribal health systems and facilities;
  • Pay for reachable hospitals and clinics; and
  • Fund the Indian Health Service.

It’s time for the federal government to step up. Tribal leaders have for too long been forced to navigate the perils of colonialism and displacement without due and owing aid. The time has come for the country to answer for its history of abuse toward Native Americans — if not for moral reasons, then to uphold its promises made over the course of United States’ history.

Jodi Archambault works with Wend Collective and is a former Special Assistant to the President on the White House Domestic Policy Council under the Obama Administration. She is Hunkpapa/Oglala Lakota.

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