The 38th annual fall conference of the Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA), held online from Oct. 5-9, featured a pair of Congressional decision-makers who shared their perspectives and experience of working with Indian Country.
New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski spoke about the harsh health and economic effects the pandemic has had on Indian Country as well as the struggles endured with limited technology.
Haaland is in her first term in Congress. She described meeting a Native American constituent as she was walked through the Capitol’s statuary hall after being elected in 2018.
“We stood crying and hugging each other and it made me realize how important it is for us to have representation in Congress and in every office,” said Haaland, a Democrat who is seeking re-election. “Our work in
Congress might have inspired others to run and be a voice for our people. I’m pleased for what we have been able to accomplish, but there is so much more to do.”
Haaland serves as co-chair of the bipartisan Native American Caucus with Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Cole (Chickasaw), who she calls a mentor.
“When we get together, we bring up all the issues that are important,” she said. “We work together across the aisle. We got several bills signed into law and are working hard to get broadband to our rural communities.”
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the disparities communities of color face, including in Indian Country.
Haaland said Native Americans are about 11% of the population in New Mexico and at one point had more than 50% of the state’s positive cases of Covid-19.
“The White House didn’t want to give Indian Country a dime from the CARES Act,” Haaland said. “With colleagues from the other side of the aisle we were able to get $8 billion for Indian Country. We passed the HEROES Act several months ago and it is still sitting on [Senate majority leader] Mitch McConnell’s desk. We will keep fighting for broadband service, Indian Health Service and everything else that will make life better for us.”
Limited access to technology is a problem for about 1.5 million Native Americans. Haaland said the digital divide is harming tribes and, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, introduced the DIGITAL Reservations Act which will give tribes permanent spectrum rights and licenses over their own land and enable them to deploy wireless internet services. If passed, the act will fulfill self-governance and self management of natural resources on native lands.
“It lays the groundwork for more permanent solutions,” Haaland said. “I have spoken to tribes who are operating their governments on dial up. Communication is a right in this era. I also introduced a broadband for all bill, which recognizes it as a civil and human right.”
A lack of broadband has hindered some tribal communities in areas such as education and telehealth.
Haaland and Warren also introduced the Honoring Promises to Native Nations Act, which would address chronic underfunding, barriers to sovereignty and holding the federal government accountable for honoring the country’s legal promises to tribes.
“The bill works to resolve federal funding barriers,” Haaland said. “The U.S. government hasn’t lived up to its trust responsibilities; everything they failed to do has an effect on everything else. That failure affects education, housing, health care, law enforcement and economic development. If we are able to tackle those pillars, I think things will be so much better. Those things work together to ensure tribes have what they need to become successful.”
Alaska contains about 40% of the country’s tribes and Sen. Murkowski has been negotiating with and for them during her 18 years in the Senate. She talked about the skills used to negotiate successfully.
“I would say patience, particularly at this time when our world has become so partisan,” said Murkowski, a Republican. “It’s difficult to get to the merits of the issue because politics complicates things. The shared interest is to bring about change and good policy. You have to have a level of patience and stay focused on the purpose. That’s easier said than done, but I feel it is about treating both sides with respect for the views they have to offer. If you start the conversation off respectfully there is greater willingness to negotiate in good faith.”
She has been a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs since being elected in 2002 and says her time on the committee has been rewarding. During the next session, she said the committee will be focused on what needs to be done in a post-Covid world.
“We are seeing a devastating impact on our economy and health care systems,” Murkowski said. “We are a state that isn’t connected by roads, over 80% of it isn’t connected. Think of what that means if you have to get to a clinic a distance away. Many villages are shut in and don’t have the capability to respond if someone contracts the virus. They told air carriers not to come and they can’t seek help from other villages because of lockdowns. It means isolation.”
The impact on Alaska’s Native villages includes a halt to the ferry system and villages on islands being shut off from supplies. The state’s largest regional airline, Ravn Alaska, filed for bankruptcy in April.
“It’s tough to run a business when you are cut off,” Murkowski said.