Updated ‘Broken Promises’ Report Will Hold Administration Accountable to Indian Country

“Congress will have an opportunity to address the longstanding failures of the federal government,” said Congresswoman Deb Haaland. 

The Coronavius pandemic has exacerbated the problems already identified in the report Broken Promises: Continuing Federal Funding Shortfall for Native Americans. The lack of wireless networks on Tribal land and other inequities across Indian Country in health care, education, voting rights, economic development and more are pronounced amid the global crisis. Meanwhile, response by Congress and the Executive Branch has proven inadequate in meeting Indian Country’s needs. 

Given that the chronic underfunding of programs designed to support the social and economic wellbeing of Native Americans is amplified due to COVID-19, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) has voted to fulfill U.S. Representative Deb Haalan (D-New Mexico) and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) request to update the recommendations of its Broken Promises report. 

“The Broken Promises report is a groundbreaking, guiding examination of the federal government’s broken trust responsibility,” Warren and Haaland said.  

Warren and Haaland aim to hold the Trump Administration and the entire federal government accountable for federal mismanagement that continues a pattern of failures that put Native people’s lives at risk during a public health emergency.

“Native American communities have endured a long history of oppression and broken promises – from blankets laced in disease to times when my grandparents and others in their communities were taken away from their families and put into boarding schools – the federal government has failed to live up to it responsibility to Native Nations to provide support for basic necessities in exchange for land and mass extermination of Native people,” said Congresswoman Deb Haaland. “Congress will have an opportunity to address the longstanding failures of the federal government. This legislative proposal is the vehicle to further the conversation about what Indian Country needs for these promises to be adequately fulfilled, and to empower tribal governments to serve their people. The federal government must honor its promises.”

The White House reportedly opposed the provision of direct aid to Tribal governments in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act—aid that is crucial for Tribal Nations to provide needed government services to their citizens. After a push by Senate Democrats and the Congressional Native American Caucus, the CARES Act provided this aid under the Coronavirus Relief Fund. However, after the enactment of the law, the Department of the Treasury delayed disbursement of the funds for weeks and is still activity withholding Tribes economic relief funding. Additionally, Administration initially excluded important Tribal businesses from the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program.

The federal response to the health care aspects of the crisis—particularly a lack of funding for the Indian Health Service (IHS)—has also fallen short of what Indian Country needs, according to a statement from Warren and Haaland. The Broken Promises report noted that per capita IHS health care expenditures in 2017 were $3,332, compared to $9,207 per person for federal health care spending nationally. Since the pandemic, the situation has only gotten worse. Tribal nations and urban Indian organizations have had to navigate red tape in order to receive desperately needed supplies and relief funds. The pandemic, coupled with inadequate federal funding, has contributed to the devastation of Nation Nations’ economies, and has prevented Tribal citizens from accessing healthcare, education, and employment.

In response to the Broken Promises report, Haaland and Warren released a legislative proposal last year to address chronic underfunding and barriers to sovereignty in Indian Country and hold the federal government accountable for honoring America’s legal promises to Native peoples. 

Based on Tribal feedback, expert and public input, and extensive research and analysis, and with the request of Rep. David Kilmer (D-Wash.), the USCCR’s Broken Promises report, released on December 20, 2018, evaluated the extent to which the federal government is meeting its trust and treaty responsibilities. The report also examined resources provided by the federal agencies that administer programs for Native Americans and Native Hawaiians, including the Departments of Health and Human Services, Interior, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, and Education, and concluded that federal programs designed to support the social and economic wellbeing of Tribal nations and Native peoples remain chronically underfunded and often inefficiently structured.

“The Commission in 2018 reported on the federal government’s chronic underfunding of programs designed to support the social and economic wellbeing of Native Americans, in a failure of federal trust obligations to Native Americans,” said USCCR Chair Catherine E. Lhamon. “We are ready to revisit this crucial issue, in this global pandemic crisis, to examine direct civil rights impacts to Native American communities. We appreciate the leadership of Congresswoman Haaland and Senator Warren, and look forward to reporting to Congress, the President, and the American people what we find in our assessment.”

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