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Native Americans in dual battle against Covid-19 and U.S. government

By Michael Z. Muhammad -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: May 12, 2020 - 1:12:00 PM

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It’s been said that if White America has a cold, then Black people have pneumonia. Well square this by two, and you will begin to see the potential effects the Covid-19 virus pandemic could have among Native Americans. The H1N1 flu killed four times the number of Native Americans compared to the rest of the population, and in 1918 the Spanish fl u nearly decimated Native American communities.

The Native community has been likened to a ‘tinder box’ for the virus with common threads running through tribes in various states including Alaska. Native Americans suffer from health disparities like diabetes, heart disease, and asthma. The housing conditions are multigenerational, posing problems for social distancing; many lack running water, and adequate sanitation. All of the challenges are an outgrowth of and compounded by poverty. The risks to Native American communities in Indian Country prevalent 100 years ago are still prevalent today based on what some activists argue is based on racism and in equality.

“Every tribe is facing different challenges right now. With some being economic and other places are really being walloped like the Navajo Nation,” said Bryan Newland, president of Bay Mills Indian Community (Ojibwe), located on the Southeastern shores of Lake Superior.

“Right now, it’s a resource issue. We need to make sure we have all the tools that governments need to keep people safe. Personal protection equipment, access to medical care, clean water, over crowded housing solutions, and food,” he told The Final Call.

“I think we see from the data from around the country is the folks that are bearing the worst from the Covid outbreak are poor people and communities of color. In urban and rural areas, we are seeing it hit Indian people really hard. The outbreak is putting a magnifying glass around issues of poverty and racial inequality that already existed,” added Mr. Newland.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Native American and Alaskan Natives numbers around 2.8 million. The number increases to 6.9 million when including those of more than one race. There are 573 federally recognized Indian tribes in the U.S. According to The Guardian, one of the challenges is gauging accurate data on virus statistics among Native Americans is because states are not necessarily documenting that information.

“Half of all American Indian and Alaskan Natives live in just 10 states, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As of April 21, all 10 had published some racial demographic data, but four—Texas, Florida, New York and Michigan—had not included a breakdown for Native Americans,” noted

Fifty-seven percent of the total positive Covid-19 tests among Native Americans is from the Navajo Nation whose land is situated in northern Arizona and parts of Utah and New Mexico. According to their website, the Navajo have suffered 1,873 positive cases of Covid-19 resulting in 604 deaths. A state of emergency was declared by Navajo Nation leadership.

“We need federal dollars,” said Jonathan Nez, President of the Navajo Nation in a virtual roundtable discussion with several tribal leaders about the impacts of Covid-19 in Indian Country. The roundtable was hosted April 17 by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) who serves as chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources.

“The federal agencies are using the same process, forcing us to apply for money via grant applications, having to jump through hoops. All of the tribal leaders have been advocating for direct funding to tribal governments. Indian country needs these dollars now,” argued Mr. Nez.

Money has been allocated to Indian country by the federal government through the CARES Act (The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act). According to a breakdown from the National Congress of American Indians, The Bureau of Indian Affairs received $453 million, from an $8 billion tribal set aside from the Coronavirus Relief Fund. A little over $1 billion is for Indian Health Services, $300 million in supplemental housing and community development funding and $100 million for supplemental funding for food distribution programs on Indian reservations.

Those interviewed for this article state unanimously Indian Country has not seen a dime. The delay is caused by the Department of the Treasury, according to various news reports. The Treasury Department said it still hasn’t figured out how to distribute the $8 billion coronavirus relief fund promised. Payments were scheduled to start going out on April 24.

A federal judge recently blocked an attempt by the Trump administration from directing coronavirus relief funds designated to help Native American communities to certain for profit corporations owned by Natives, noted several media outlets. This was after several tribes sued the federal government to keep the $8 billion out of the hands of the corporations.

Michael Chavarria is governor of the Santa Clara Pueblo, located in New Mexico. He noted during an interview with The Final Call that his tribe had suffered tremendous financial loss due to the virus. He stated with the closing of casinos losses have reached into the millions. “Due to lost revenue, we are not able to provide essential services such as health care, public safety, elder care, infrastructure. We do not have a tax base to draw on and help from the government has been slow. It has been a burden,” he lamented.

Governor Chavarria stated that absent federal funds, the Pueblos have set up the Pueblo Relief Fund. After shutting down the schools, he asked how do you educate when you don’t have broadband services necessary to continue the online type of classes? “The relief fund supports families that are struggling to meet daily needs such as food, water, medicine, sanitary supplies, cleaning supplies. Tax-deductible donations can be made at pueblorelief. org,” he said.

Governor Chavarria said that in 2020 many Native communities don’t have running water in their homes. They don’t have electricity, which makes it challenging to adhere to guidelines from the CDC to wash your hands. “It goes back to our federal trustee, who is the Indian Health Service, to be supporting our health needs. Throughout all these years, it has been inadequately funded through Congress. So that puts a tremendous burden and hardship to provide testing, internal capacities, monitoring, tracing, and investigation for our Pueblos here in New Mexico,” he explained.

Jerilyn Church, CEO for the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board also participated in the roundtable discussion by Rep. Grijalva. She voiced concern about the lack of adequate equipment. “We are very concerned about the lack of testing equipment. The Great Plains region as a whole received only 792 test kits.

We are not able to provide testing to the public, reserving them for health care providers. In Rapid City, we will need at least 1,400 test kits. Overall in the Great Plains, we will need 4,000,” she said.

Another primary concern that is consistent with many in Indian Country is the loss of revenue by their medical facilities. “Our third party revenue has taken a serious hit. The virus has caused a decline in our ability to provide primary health services, impacting our revenue stream, causing a huge impact on our bottom line,” noted Ms. Church.

O.J. Semans, co-executive director of Four Directions, a Native American voting rights group and member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe told The Final Call he is seeing many of the same issues.

“That’s the rub,” he said. “Money is supposed to be coming, but most tribes have not received it. Or it is going through Indian Health Services and is trickling down. It only increases things being bad for Indian Country,” he said.

Agreeing with Ms. Church, he pointed out the main thing needed is to be able to conduct testing systematically. “When kits are sent, they are often incomplete. The shortage has prevented tribes from being able to monitor its members. They are using the Abbott test kits. Right now, we only have 70 test kits for our total population,” he said.

“The dangerous part is this, with the preexisting conditions that tribal members have and the INS failing to do preventive test definitely puts our people in grave danger. We have been lucky with having only one case,” said Mr. Semans.

“The native community has really been taking a proactive approach to attacking this virus,” he pointed out. “Really, more than most of the states. We have been using roadblocks, curfews, closing business, time, and days for elders to shop, no contact where families drive up for food, every step that we can to ensure the virus is not being brought into the reservation.”