Indian Country seeks aid in amid pandemic
National Congress of American Indians CEO Kevin J. Allis on Sept. 30 addresses the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies about Indian Country getting additional funding and better data amid the pandemic. COURTESY
WASHINGTON – Indian Country representatives appealed to federal lawmakers Sept. 30 for additional funding and better data reporting during a House committee hearing designed to spotlight more clearly the challenges Native communities are facing during the pandemic.
“I recognize that COVID-19 has hit Indian Country disproportionately harder than the rest of the nation, that the situation is dire and that the additional emergency funding is needed not only to keep the tribal governments and communities functioning, but to save lives,” said David Joyce, ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies. “If there was ever a time for this subcommittee to hold firm in its nonpartisan commitment to tribes, this is it.”
National Congress of American Indians CEO Kevin J. Allis offered a snapshot of Indian Country’s COVID-19 recovery and response needs, with a specific focus on emergency appropriations, data deficiencies and annual appropriations.
“Today, Indian Country finds itself in a national emergency,” Allis said. “While intensified by COVID-19, the roots of this are founded in the chronic underfunding and the government’s neglect in fiduciary obligations to tribal nations and their citizens. The existing crisis has exposed the discrepancies and disparities that exist in our communities, and has shown the vulnerability of American Indians and Alaskan Natives to this virus. It has resulted in tribal communities, at times, having the highest per capita infection rates in the United States.”
Allis, like others who testified, called on lawmakers to provide additional funding and support for Indian Country during the pandemic.
“Tribal leaders have reported to us that their nations, their existing systems of service delivery and infrastructure, are under a great deal of stress, and are very close to reaching a breaking point,” he said. “As a result of lost government revenues, tribal nations urgently need direct relief to support tribal services like education and child welfare. We’ve requested in letters and meetings $20 billion in increased appropriations to the CRF fund, the set-aside that was in the CARES Act. In addition to direct relief, Indian Country needs emergency appropriations with flexible conditions.”
Carolyn Angus-Hornbuckle, chief operating officer and director of the National Indian Health Board’s public health policy programs, lauded the addition of $2.3 billion for the Indian Health Service in the House’s latest coronavirus aid package. However, the House and Senate have yet to both agree on a relief deal.
“We are 29 weeks into the throes of this pandemic, but it has been 23 weeks since Congress passed a bipartisan relief package,” she said. “This week, the House is set to pass another COVID stimulus package. We’re pleased that this package includes $2.3 billion overall for Indian Health Service. But until a partisan package is passed by both chambers, tribal communities will be forced to wait for necessary resources that are in line with trust and treaty obligations.”
Angus-Hornbuckle noted that in June, the IHS reported 12,930 positive cases. Now, she said, there are more than 50,000.
“Back in June, we lacked national figures on COVID-19 deaths among American Indians and Alaska Natives,” she said. “We still a lack a full picture of COVID deaths in Indian Country. But we do know that according to the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control), death rates for Native people are 3.5 times higher than for whites across 23 states. We know that Native people suffer disproportionately from underlying health conditions that increase the risk for COVID-19, including diabetes, obesity and cancer.”
Allis criticized what he called the U.S. Department of Interior’s “non-collection of critical tribal data.”
“Presently, Indian Affairs programs at DOI do not collect the data necessary to measure unmet obligations across tribal programs,” he said. “As a result, any measure of any kind of progress is arbitrary. A failure to collect any data and put forward a needs-based budget directly harms tribal nations throughout the year, with or without a pandemic, and really hurts us when we have relief negotiations going on around this pandemic.”
The committee’s chair, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said that since the pandemic’s beginning, she and other lawmakers have advocated on behalf of Indian Country.
“In this committee we have discussed year after year those disparities and the broken promises of the federal government to fund and adequately care for health care, nutrition and public health protections for Native American brothers and sisters,” she said. “We’ve made some progress, but budget caps and sequestration have constrained our work together, and the federal spending for Native American programs, we recognize, still lags behind. Congress needs to understand the full impact of the pandemic on Native Americans and how to better meet the needs of the communities you are here testifying on behalf of in future relief packages.”
Francys Crevier, CEO of the National Council of Urban Indian Health, said that while “the state of affairs in Indian Country remains dire,” she commended McCollum for her support.
“When the pandemic hit, she called our urban Indian organizations personally and asked what she could do to help,” Crevier said. “We need more leaders like this in Congress.”
Congressman and subcommittee member Derek Kilmer also weighed in during the hearing.
“I think a lot of us were proud we were able to provide some dedicated resources for tribal communities in the CARES Act,” he said. “But I was really disappointed that the lack of consultation and the lack of effective coordination led to significant delays in access to those funds. I was also struck by a statement from your testimony that DOI’s data deficiencies resulted in 574 tribal governments receiving only half of 1% of the $2 trillion in CARES Act despite tribal communities’ vulnerability to the rising pandemic. Honestly, that came as a shock to me and really underscores how much work we have to do.”