Even before the COVID-19 public health crisis began to grip the globe, Indian Country faced significant challenges from underfunding in health care, education, broadband and internet access, economic development, housing, human services and more.
A group of Indian Country leaders said in a March 20 teleconference for members of the media that COVID-19 is making all those problems worse, and fast.
In addition, the leaders have been worried that Native Americans are being largely left out of the conversation in Washington, or at best are being underfunded through passed and proposed recovery and stimulus legislation.
The short-term goal is to be visible, funded and part of recovery efforts.
National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) president Fawn Sharp said it is a situation Indian Country has had to deal with for decades, if not centuries.
“Tribal nations have been chronically underfunded in every sector imaginable,” she said on the teleconference.
“There are already vulnerable and stressed Tribal Nations.”
Kevin Allis, CEO of NCAI, echoed the seriousness of the situation for Native Americans in all areas, but especially in health care.
“There is a higher rate of underlying medical conditions that increase the severe risk and illness by COVID-19, including overcrowded housing situations,” he said. “Put all these things together and lay on top of this risk the facts of health disparities and distance to get goods – the recipe is for disaster.”
Allis said national leaders, state leaders and the mainstream media were not giving Indian Country enough attention.
For example, he said the draft bill for the third stimulus package has “completely ignored and does not include” Indian Country.
“There is no consideration on any front in that draft bill at this point by the GOP that addresses any of this stuff we’ve addressed,” he said. “We’re hoping things change very quickly.”
(Editor’s note: The bill that subsequently passed the Senate, and as of press time was being considered by the House, contained $8 billion for Indian Country).
Allis said the situation is made worse by the fact that tribes already have a limited ability to generate tax revenue, rather depending heavily on their businesses located on and off reservations.
“When tribes have to close, the unemployment rate skyrockets, and there is no funding coming in for law enforcement, criminal justice and health care,” he said.
Dante Desidario, executive director of the Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA), agreed that Indian Country was in a particularly vulnerable position on the health care and economic fronts.
“Indian Country relies on economic development in a critical and different way from other governments,” Desidario said. “What we see in this pending crises is the idea that tribes are vulnerable to a significant reduction in government revenues, and the industries impacted most immediately are the hospitality, tourism, gaming and oil and gas industries. The federal government can’t forget about Indian Country.”
Stacy Bohlen, the CEO of the National Indian Health Board (NIHB), said she is working to ensure tribes remain informed on the epidemic and that there is access to resources.
She said the NIHB will launch a “Tribal COVID-19 Resource Center” from its website at nihb.org.
Bohlen said NIHB is searching for resources from local, regional, national and international sources.
She is concerned about all Tribal Nations, but particularly those in the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, Nebraska, North and South Dakota and elsewhere – places that rely directly on the federal government for their health care.
“It’s requiring everyone to come to the table with their tools and information – including private sector, philanthropic and global. We’re running as fast as we can with blindfolds on,” she said.
Education is yet another immediate concern with amplified implications for Indian Country.
Diana Cournoyer, executive director of the National Indian Education Association (NIEA), said it boils down to funding.
“We need to be included in the conversation at federal, state and local level. [The crisis will] disproportionately impact tribal students where lack of broadband exists and there is a lack of adequate equipment,” Cournoyer said. “A lot of our students receive breakfast, lunch and a snack [at school]. Sometimes it’s their only food of the day.”
She said tribal schools were working feverishly to print educational packets so students without internet access would have something to work on at home.
“The school year is a wash in a lot of communities,” Cournoyer said. “The technology gap is going to be significant.”
David Simmons, director of government affairs and advocacy for the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA), said he’s concerned about the wellbeing of children and families through the crises.
“Even before COVID-19, tribal human services were stressed,” Simmons said.
He said NICWA has begun to hold a series of webinars with providers to access resources and to partner on outreach to policymakers and constituent groups.