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Libby Washburn and PaaWee Rivera
White House

Native Americans face persistent and systemic inequities. The COVID-19 pandemic is only the latest challenge facing our community and its impact has been catastrophic.

People living on reservations are four times more likely to have COVID-19 and American Indians and Alaska Natives are nearly twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white Americans. And health effects are only part of the problem. The loss of Native elders threatens the preservation of tribal languages, traditions, and cultures. And economically, Native American families are facing unprecedented hardship with Native American small businesses facing severe financial distress from the pandemic.

President Biden understands the importance of honoring the federal trust and treaty responsibility with Tribal Nations. It is more important than ever for Tribal governments to be able to count on strong partners in the White House and across the administration in times of crisis. That is why President Biden has focused attention on the needs of Native Americans since Day One and in a historic emergency legislative package to provide direct financial relief to communities and individuals, and to stand up a national vaccination program to protect us from further harm and accelerate our Nation’s path to recovery.

We face an unprecedented challenge in overcoming this deadly pandemic. To combat this, we must act swiftly. President Biden understands that, in order to save lives and support the economic recovery of our communities, we must take bold action. The American Rescue Plan will coordinate a government-wide COVID-19 response that includes a vaccination program in Indian Country and the safe reopening of tribal schools. He is asking Congress for more than $400 billion toward critical measures to contain the virus and the investment of $160 billion in a national vaccine plan to administer the vaccine fairly and widely, with more supplies, testing, and a public health workforce. These measures will help combat the heavy toll this virus is exacting on Native American families and deliver community-based and culturally competent care.

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The American Rescue Plan will also deliver immediate economic relief to working Native families, devoting nearly $1 trillion to help working families, including Native American families. President Biden’s plan will help Native American families who have been hit hardest by the crisis by providing working families a $1,400 per-person check. The plan extends unemployment insurance benefits and eligibility and provides a $400 supplement, supporting Native Americans who are out of work. To help those struggling the most, it provides $35 billion in rental, mortgage, and homelessness assistance. The plan will also raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and expands child care assistance and access to behavioral health services to address the disproportionate trauma and mental health burden for Native communities. In addition, the plan reinvigorates federal programs to protect survivors of gender-based violence.

The American Rescue Plan will provide $20 billion in emergency funding directly to tribal governments to combat the COVID-19 crisis. President Biden has already opened the national strategic stockpile to help tribes with medical supplies but this emergency funding does more. It will support efforts to obtain personal protective equipment, increase access to clean water and electricity, and expand internet access so that Native children can learn remotely and Native American families can obtain health care through telemedicine. President Biden has already eliminated the tribal cost share for FEMA funding, but this new funding will allow Tribal Nations to stabilize their economies devastated by the pandemic. The plan also invests $440 billion in critical support to hard-hit communities including tribal communities through emergency grants, lending, and investments for small businesses and Native American owned businesses. These new resources will give Tribal Nations resources to create sustainable economies and tackle severe infrastructure deficiencies making tribes more resilient in facing future pandemics and disasters.

Many Tribal Nations have endured the worst of this pandemic, but have shown great leadership in supporting their citizens and surrounding communities. Tribal governments have been key partners in promoting rigorous community safety measures, distributing personal protective equipment, offering their facilities as quarantine and vaccinations sites, providing essential services, and much more. Yet the challenges are still immense and to overcome and build back better from this pandemic, we must do it together. The American Rescue Plan respects treaty and trust responsibilities to Tribal Nations not just in words but in actions. President Biden is focusing carefully on the needs of Native Americans in this pandemic. We must take swift action to pass the American Rescue Plan to ensure that tribal communities are protected and receive critical resources to empower a strong tribal recovery.

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Libby Washburn, Special Assistant to the President for Native Affairs, White House Domestic Policy Council and citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and PaaWee Rivera, Senior Advisor and Tribal Affairs Director, White House Intergovernmental Affairs and a member of the Pueblo of Pojoaque.