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Native American Tribes Battle Feds for Coronavirus Relief as Death Toll Grows

SOCIAL DISTANCE DRIVING sign at The I-25 Gap project, Castle Rock, CO Date: 15 April 2020, 10:04:29 Source: Own work Author: Xnatedawgx

“We once again have been forgotten by our own government.”

Native American tribes and reservations have been particularly hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic both in terms of public health and economy.

“We are United States citizens but we’re not treated like that,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez told NPR. “You can hear the frustration, the tone of my voice. We once again have been forgotten by our own government.”

With one of the highest coronavirus infection rates in the country, Navajo Nation is fighting for federal relief in a region that is often ignored by Washington. As of April 24, Navajo Nation has 1,540 confirmed coronavirus cases and 58 deaths. With those numbers, Navajo Nation has suffered more deaths than 13 American states.

While the federal government has passed stimulus packages that include money earmarked for Native American tribes and reservations, many have complained about the difficulty in obtaining that money.

Financial relief is desperately needed in many areas reliant on tourist dollars and casino money to keep the local economy going. Native Americans also live with more comorbidities than the average American, making the population more vulnerable to the lethal coronavirus.

Health Disparities

According to the Indian Health Service, members of the 573 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes live with many health disparities compared to the average American. They die three times as often to diabetes and nearly two times as often to influenza or pneumonia as compared to the rate for the rest of America.

Living in rural areas with a lack of healthcare and in more impoverished conditions, often due to a lack of federal funding are all reasons that make tribes more susceptible to the coronavirus.

“When you look at Indian Country, the health disparities are off the charts. There’s high rates of diabetes and heart disease, so if they get infected (with coronavirus), there’s a good chance they’re going to die,” Kevin Allis, CEO of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) told Great Falls Tribune.

Tribes have to contest with overcrowded medical facilities and a lack of resources in everyday life, a structural problem made more acute by the coronavirus crisis. And many have noted getting through to Washington has been made more difficult with President Trump in the Oval Office.

Republican Representative Tom Cole from Oklahoma said, “this (federal funding for Native American tribes) has not been a huge focus of the administration.”

Federal Dollars

Tribal governments have long pushed for more access to federal dollars as many do not collect taxes, thus limiting their ability to generate revenue. Among other health problems, people in America’s 573 tribes are six times more likely to die due to alcohol than the average American.

In President Trump’s stimulus packages, several for-profit Native corporations have been made eligible for coronavirus relief money. This decision has jeopardized many local tribal governments and taken money away they need for healthcare purposes.

Dr. Laura Hammitt, director of Infectious Disease Programs at the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, said the Indian Health Service was chronically underfunded.

Different tribal governments have sued the federal government over the decision to include for-profit companies in the relief package. The decision follows a pattern from the government of prioritizing corporations over American workers.

On April 22nd, Navajo Nation filed its lawsuit against the federal government in the disagreement over coronavirus relief.

In a press release, Navajo Nation President Johnathan Nez wrote, “allocating funds from the Coronavirus Relief Fund to the Alaska Native Corporations will severely impact the Navajo Nation’s ability to fight COVID-19, and will impact every other tribe as well.”

Alec Pronk

Alec is a freelance writer with an interest in both geopolitics and American domestic issues. He finished his Master's degree with a critical focus on government counterterrorism policies.

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