WASHINGTON ― Jamescita Peshlakai is an Arizona state senator. She represents more than 122,000 people in a massive district in the northeastern portion of the state. She’s also a member of the Navajo Nation and lives in a small town on the reservation, about a mile from her mother.
Neither of them have running water or electricity.
“We’ve gotten used to it,” said Peshlakai. “I’m a veteran of [the 1991 Gulf War operation] Desert Storm. I’ve said before, it’s easier to be a military person in a war zone across the world than to be a Native American in the United States.”
Navajo Nation has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. It has more confirmed COVID-19 cases per capita than any state. Its tax base has been wiped out as casinos and other tribal businesses remain closed. And like so many other tribes around the country, Peshlakai’s community is facing a public health and economic crisis because of a combination of factors that left them vulnerable to the virus before it hit: poverty, health disparities, poor infrastructure and decades of negligence by the U.S. government.
Congress has provided some emergency COVID-19 relief to tribes, but it hasn’t been enough. In the case of Navajo Nation, a reservation with more than 173,000 people where 30% don’t have potable water and 10% don’t have electricity, it’s going to take a more comprehensive response when a pandemic hits.
House Democrats went big last week when they passed a $3 trillion coronavirus relief package, and they didn’t skimp on help for Native communities. Their bill, the HEROES Act, included a historic level of $24 billion for the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes. Most of it, $20 billion, would go directly to tribal governments to help them stabilize. Another $2 billion would go to the Indian Health Service, which provides health care to more than 2.5 million indigenous people. The package also included $900 million for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to address overcrowded housing and sanitation; $450 million for the Bureau of Indian Education; $100 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and $4 million to assist tribes with domestic violence programs.
“What this pandemic did is, our historic nasty secret and embarrassment is in plain view for everybody right now.”
A bill like this would be a literal lifesaver for tribes if it became law, but it won’t. Republicans have sniffed at its price tag and scope, and the White House vowed to veto it. But House Democrats passed it as their opening bid in negotiations on the next COVID-19 relief bill, and as millions of Americans continue to struggle amid the pandemic, the pressure is on Senate Republicans to do something. The question for tribes is which, if any, of the House bill’s tribal provisions have the best chance of winning GOP support.
“Honestly, Jen, all of it,” an overly optimistic Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, told me.
Grijalva, a co-sponsor of the bill, said its aid for tribes targets chronic issues that have hurt indigenous communities and have only worsened amid the pandemic. The Indian Health Service has been underfunded for years, he said, and violence against women, already sky-high on reservations, has increased. The fact that so many Navajo people lack potable water means they can’t wash their hands to protect themselves from COVID-19.
“I think that the sense of benign neglect and outright neglect ― not even benign ― it’s historic in Indian Country,” Grijalva said. “What this pandemic did is, our historic nasty secret and embarrassment is in plain view for everybody right now. And I think it’s going to be very difficult for my Republican colleagues to turn their back on this.”
Congress has passed four COVID-19 relief bills so far, and each time, tribes had to jump through hoops to get their fair share of federal resources.
The first two bills required tribes to go through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for emergency aid that should have been directly routed to tribal governments. Because of the added layer of bureaucracy, tribes had to fill out multiple rounds of applications for money to fight the spread of COVID-19. It added weeks to a process when the timing was critical.
In the last bill, the $2 trillion CARES Act, the White House wanted to give $0 to tribes. Senate Democrats fought and got them $8 billion, an historic amount but still less than half of what tribal advocacy groups said was needed. Once it became law in late March, the Treasury Department took more than a month to begin distributing that money, largely because of its own incompetence but in part because of a lawsuit that complicated matters. Nearly two months later, about 60% of the money has gone out, but Treasury is sitting on the other 40% pending the outcome of the lawsuit, which it does not need to do.
A Treasury Department spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on how much of the $8 billion in tribal relief has actually gone out the door.
Meanwhile, the Small Business Administration decided that many casinos ― the financial lifeblood of many tribal governments ― wouldn’t be eligible for the $350 billion in emergency payroll relief provided by CARES Act, despite outcry from tribes and lawmakers who said it was never the intent of the bill to exclude them from relief.
It wasn’t until late last month, after the first pot of $350 billion was depleted and Congress OK’d more funding for payroll relief, that the SBA changed its rules to make casinos with fewer than 500 employees eligible for aid.
Putting it all together, between the federal government’s bureaucracy, the delays in getting aid and the denial of financial help to casinos, tribes have been largely on their own for months as COVID-19 has ravaged their communities.
All eyes are now on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who controls whether the Senate will advance another COVID-19 relief package. He’s already said he doesn’t feel any urgency to act, and senators left town Thursday for a weeklong recess, after a three-week session that didn’t produce any legislation related to the coronavirus.
“We’ll discuss the way forward in the next couple weeks,” he told reporters Tuesday.
But even Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin thinks there’s “a strong likelihood” there will need to be another emergency spending bill, despite the administration’s position that more stimulus isn’t needed yet. And some Senate Republicans say now is definitely not the time for the federal government to turn its back on tribes.
“They have historically and chronically been underfunded,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a member of the Indian Affairs Committee. “Recognizing the needs within Indian Country, and recognizing so many of the basic needs that we have in a place like Alaska, my sense is that we’re going to be looking at this and talking about further allocation.”
Asked if she’s been satisfied with the federal government’s response to tribes amid the pandemic, Murkowski cited the Treasury Department’s delays in distributing relief to Native communities and said, “No. Not at all.”
Democrats were more critical.
“At every turn, the Trump administration has failed to live up to its trust responsibility to tribes across the country — deploying COVID-19 resources in a way that systemically excludes Native communities,” charged Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico.
Udall, the vice chair of the Indian Affairs Committee, said funding in the HEROES Act for safe drinking water access and improved broadband services for telehealth is critical to combatting the coronavirus in Native communities.
“These should be bipartisan priorities,” said the New Mexico senator. “Indian Country is confronting this pandemic while bearing the weight of historic funding gaps for health care, infrastructure, and economic resources ... Senate Republicans should stop keeping us on the sidelines and let us get to work for Native communities.”
Absent Senate action, tribes will have to get by with the resources they can come up with on their own ― and hope that the Treasury Department hurries up and distributes the billions of dollars that they were supposed to have gotten by now. The situation is so dire in Navajo Nation that Doctors Without Borders sent in a team, and tribal leaders are asking for help from people in Hollywood who have used their land in TV and film.
Peshlakai called it “unprecedented” that Doctors Without Borders is aiding a community within the United States.
“They go to extreme places all over the world in developing countries,” she said. “It just goes to show the lack of federal government help in tribal nations.”
Asked how the morale is in her community, Peshlakai said people are “very angry” and have no faith that the Trump administration will help them. As of Tuesday, Navajo Nation hit a total of 4,153 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 144 confirmed deaths. Peshlakai said she’s lost three of her grandmothers to the virus, referring to three elders who weren’t biologically related to her but were part of her clan.
“The federal government has really failed tribal people all around, but this delay [in emergency relief to tribes], it has translated into lives lost now,” she said. “There is nobody in Indian Country and the Navajo Nation that is untouched.”
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