Navajo Nation and Indian Country Strained by Sluggish COVID-19 Relief

“There’s frustration from leadership ― not just here on Navajo but all of Indian Country,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said of the delay in receiving emergency aid from the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Tara Sweeney, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, is reaching out to Tribal leaders to discuss how to get their populations the economic aid promised under the CARES Act. “A compressed timeline is necessary,” she wrote in a letter on March 31, “so that we may distribute the funds as soon as possible to address your needs in these unprecedented and uncertain times.”

“As soon as possible” seems a poor choice of words at this point. For weeks, lawmakers in the U.S. government have been discussing the need for economic stimulus, and the CARES Act, signed into law on March 27, was the third phase of Congressionally approved relief from the U.S. government. But Jonathan Nez, President of the Navajo Nation, says that his people have yet to see any of the relief promised by the first two bills, much less CARES.

“There’s frustration from leadership ― not just here on Navajo but all of Indian Country,” Nez said in a town-hall session on Facebook on Tuesday night. “We feel that the United States government once again has ignored or even left out the first residents, the first people, the first citizens of this country: Indigenous people.”

The Navajo Nation is quickly emerging as one of the hardest-hit populations in Indian Country, with 214 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus, and seven confirmed deaths. In Arizona, the Navajo Nation’s share of all coronavirus cases is around 8-10% (the statistics are changing daily and hourly), which is alarmingly high for a population that makes up just 3% of the state’s total population. 

The Navajo Nation declared a state of emergency March 13, and has been under a shelter-in-place order since March 20. 

“The Native American population is particularly vulnerable not only due to underlying health disparities and high poverty rates, but also because many Indian reservations lack basic, modern day amenities such as running water, access to the internet, and connection with the electrical grid, which are vital during a pandemic,” Hilary Tompkins, the former solicitor for the U.S. Department of the Interior, told ABC News. “These factors create a perfect storm for the virus to devastate tribal communities, which we are witnessing right now with my tribe, the Navajo Nation.”

The Grand Canyon National Park closed on Wednesday, becoming the last major national park to shut its gates to visitors. The Navajo Nation had been pleading for the closure for weeks. It’s emblematic of the problem the Nation faces, seeming to be several steps ahead of the U.S. government in its moves to minimize the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, the virus seems to be picking up steam there. 

READ MORE: Grand Canyon Closes Indefinitely After Tribal Insistence 

In a call with President Trump and other state governors on Monday, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham told the president that she was concerned that “we’re seeing a much higher hospital rate, a much younger hospital rate, a much quicker go-right-to-the-vent rate for this population. And we’re seeing doubling in every day-and-a-half … and it could wipe out those tribal nations.”

“Wow, that’s something,” President Trump replied. “We’re gonna get you that hospital as quickly as we can. .. Boy, that’s too bad for the Navajo Nation – I’ve been hearing that.”

The real-world effects of comments like these are yet to be seen. The scheduled pace of action isn’t promising.

The CARES Act includes an $8 billion set aside for American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes (of roughly $10 billion total in emergency aid for Indian Country). The first consultation with the Department of the Interior and the Department of Treasury is set to happen Thursday, April 2, which is arguably a quick turnaround from the date the act was signed into law. But the timeline creeps ever longer from there. A second call will happen the following week, and comments from Tribes are due back to the Feds on April 14. The money set aside for Tribal governments must be paid out by April 26, a deadline that is a full month from the bill’s signing date.

Aaron Payment, the chairperson of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, says that the funds are already too late, stating on an Indianz broadcast, “we need the money right now.” Payment said that his Tribe will need $20 million to stay afloat during the ongoing crisis. 

Jason Salsman, spokesman for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, said that his Tribe is in dire straits after having shut down its gaming operations indefinitely. “We’ve got a $3.4 million payroll that we’re keeping up through the shutdown,” he told the Oklahoman. “We’ve got zero revenue coming in (from casinos).”








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