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Native American Caucus fights for Indian Country during coronavirus outbreak

All the focus in Congress has turned to the country’s need for emergency funding and assistance to deal with the COVID-19 public health emergency and its economic implications.

The Congressional Native American Caucus has been working to ensure that Indian Country and its needs are well represented and not left out of discussions as legislation is quickly crafted.

A positive for Indian Country is that there is more Native American representation in Congress than ever before.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-OK, (Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma) and Rep. Deb Haaland D-N.M., (Pueblo of Laguna/Jemez Pueblo) are co-chairs of the caucus.

Haaland and Rep. Sharice Davids, D-KS, (Ho-Chunk Nation) were the first two Native American women ever elected to the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm election.

Davids is a vice-chair of the caucus, along with Markwayne Mullin, R-OK, (Cherokee Nation), Raúl Grijalva, D-AZ, Doug LaMalfa, R-CA, David Joyce, R-OH, Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., and Don Young, R-AK. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-MN, who formally chaired the caucus for six years is co-chair emeritus.

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., is co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus. Courtesy photo.

Since their election, Haaland and Davids have been a force for Native American issues and concerns, including the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Now the focus is squarely on battling the coronavirus.

Rep. Haaland held a public “Coronavirus Town Hall” teleconference March 17 with two New Mexico-based doctors who are working on the front lines in that state.

Part of the challenge for lawmakers is the dueling priorities of national legislative concerns, and tending to more localized issues happening state-by-state.

Haaland walked that line during the town hall, providing an overview of actions Congress is taking and deferring to the health experts on questions related to the virus itself in local communities.

“In Congress we are discussing everything,” Rep. Haaland said at the town hall’s start. “Challenges for equipment, rooms and hospital beds. We’re consistently having those discussions.”

Of the stimulus packages that have been under frantic development in Washington, Haaland said: “They need to include underrepresented communities so that no one is left behind.”

One of the top pieces of advice from Haaland and the health care professionals was for people to stay home as much as possible and to wash hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds.

One caller wanted the doctors to explain the differences between isolation, quarantine and social distancing.

Isolation, they said, takes place when an individual tests positive for the virus and is usually confined to a hospital or similar special environment.

Quarantine is suggested for someone that has been exposed or was likely exposed, but isn’t ill. Those individuals are usually confined to their homes. In addition, those who are in high-risks groups and the elderly, even if they have not been exposed to the virus, are advised to self-quarantine, the doctors said.

Finally, social distancing is generally reserved for the rest of the public – keeping at least six feet of distance between others so the virus doesn’t spread.

Social distancing has also quickly included telework and telehealth that is used by many businesses, health care clinics and doctors’ offices to aid in increasing social distancing.

The bottom line from Rep. Haaland and the health care experts, however, was to refer to Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for protection from the virus and for what to do if a person thinks they are sick.

“It’s incredibly important that we all do our part and stop the spread of coronavirus,” Rep. Haaland said at the conclusion of the town hall. “Please remember everyone to wash your hands frequently.” The CDC COVID-19 site can be accessed here.

Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at