WASHINGTON >> After a year that provided stark new evidence of how racial inequities and a lack of federal funding had left tribal communities and Indigenous people especially vulnerable to crises like the pandemic, President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress are seeking to address those long-standing issues with a huge infusion of federal aid.
The $1.9 trillion relief package signed into law last week by Biden contains more than $31 billion for tribal governments and other federal programs to help Native populations, a record level of assistance intended to help bolster health care and a variety of other services in some of the nation’s poorest communities.
The money is a crucial plank of Biden’s vow to address racial and economic inequities and is a potentially transformative lifeline for tribes, who were among the hardest hit by the spread of the coronavirus.
It is also a high-profile step toward more equitable treatment after centuries of treaty violations and failures by the federal government to live up to its obligations. Biden signed the law last Thursday, and on Monday the Senate confirmed Deb Haaland, who had been representing New Mexico in the House, as interior secretary, the first Native American woman to serve in the Cabinet.
The new legislation, passed without a single Republican vote, allocates $20 billion to tribal governments. It also includes more than $6 billion for the Indian Health Service and other Native American health systems, including a $20 million fund for Native Hawaiians, as well as $1.2 billion for housing and more than $1.1 billion for primary, secondary and higher education programs.
The new money comes on top of $8 billion allocated to tribal governments by Congress last March in the $2.2 trillion relief law, and additional funding for tribal health and education services in other relief legislation passed last year.
“Our promise to them has always been — on any of these issues — they will have a seat at the table,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said in an interview. “It’s essential that we’re listening to the specific issues.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic majority leader, said during a floor speech that the legislation “takes us a giant step closer to fulfilling our trust responsibilities to all Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians.”
The aid comes after a year that devastated Native people across the country, as poverty, multigenerational housing and underlying health conditions contributed to the deadly spread of the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in August that in nearly half the states, Native Americans were disproportionately affected by the virus compared with their white counterparts.
“There’s nothing more unjust than the way we currently treat Native people in the United States with whom we have treaty interest, and this was an opportunity for us to put our money where our mouth is,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, the chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee. “This is quite literally the biggest down payment in American history in the right direction, in the direction of justice.”
Lynn Malerba, the chief of the Mohegan Tribe, said the pandemic highlighted the inequities and challenges in Native American communities. Biden and this Congress understand those challenges much better than the previous administration, she said.
The funding, Malerba said, marks the first time the federal government has recognized that tribal nations participate in the national economy and have the same responsibilities to the health and well-being of their citizens as state and local governments.
“If you consider the Native population, depending on what estimate you are using, is 3 to 5% of the population and we received 1.5% of funding, that’s significant,” Malerba said. “It’s a much greater number than the previous administration had provided to us.”
The funds will mean tribal governments will be able to partly, or in some cases completely, offset revenue losses suffered during the pandemic, address health care shortcomings exposed by the virus and expand broadband access. The legislation also includes two separate grant funds for education programs for Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians.
In Washington state, Leonard Forsman, the chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, said a portion of the allotment would be used to continue building the tribe’s first health clinic within the reservation. The tribal nation of about 1,200 enrolled members has used the services of doctors from nearby towns.
Construction of a new building began after the tribe received its first batch of funding from the federal government last year and helped offset the tribe’s losses in casino revenue. The recent funds will be used to help complete the project and further stabilize the tribe’s economy.
“This will allow for those nurses who work with us, and eventually a doctor, to have a facility where they can provide services,” Forsman said.
Included in the relief package is an injection of more than $6 billion to the Indian Health Service, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. The Indian Health Service was created to carry out the government’s treaty obligations to provide health care to American Indians and Alaskan Natives.
The health service struggled to cope with the pandemic in some of the hardest-hit areas in the country. The agency said the new money would help with coronavirus testing and vaccination programs as well as with hiring more health care workers, expanding availability of mental health services and providing better access to water, a major issue in many tribal communities.
Beyond health care, the legislation addresses a range of other issues important to Native communities, including $20 million to establish an emergency Native language preservation and maintenance grant program, as tribes race to ensure that their languages are not lost with time and the deaths of older members during the pandemic.
“It took a lot of time just to sort of educate people about Indian Country and the structural — just the historic — lack of basics,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.
A number of things are converging, he said, “but I do think that the conversation around race also opened the door for people to realize, wait a minute, we never got around to getting running water and electricity and all these things, broadband, to Indian Country — like they’re not starting at the same place.”
While the $2.2 trillion relief law approved nearly a year ago included $8 billion for tribal governments, a portion of those funds remains frozen in a legal battle over who is eligible. Alaska Native corporations, for-profit businesses that serve tribal villages in Alaska, have sought to receive some of the money, prompting a monthslong battle over the definition of a tribal government.
The more than 200 Alaska Native corporations, which were established in 1971 to manage almost 45 million acres as part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, were the subject of lawsuits filed by dozens of tribal governments in the lower 48 states who challenged a Trump administration decision to allow them to receive a portion of the funding. They argued the corporations should not be eligible for coronavirus relief because they do not meet the definition of government.
A federal district judge in the District of Columbia ruled in favor of the lower 48 tribes, deeming the Alaska Native corporations ineligible for coronavirus relief funds. Because of the legal fight, only some subsidiaries of the Alaska Native corporations have received Paycheck Protection Program funds, although individual tribes in Alaska are set to get some relief through the relief legislation.
Representatives from the Alaska Native corporations say that despite the successes they have had getting vaccines into their communities, many villages have been stretched to the breaking point.
“Many of our villages lack road access, and over 30 Alaska Native communities currently lack access to running water,” the Alaska Native corporations said in a joint statement. “These realities are further exacerbated by the economic devastation COVID-19 has brought to Alaska, along with some of the highest mortality rates in the nation.”
In New Mexico, the Pueblo of Acoma continues its legal battle with the Indian Health Service over a reduction of services taking place at the community’s only hospital. In late 2020, as coronavirus cases rose in the state and hospital beds dwindled, services at the Acoma-Cañoncito-Laguna hospital were cut and it was effectively reduced to a clinic.
The Pueblo of Acoma filed suit in federal court in Washington in January, accusing the Indian Health Service of failing to provide proper notice and details to Congress before moving to downsize the hospital. The tribe claimed that under the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, a year’s advance notice must be given to Congress before closing one of these facilities. The agency has stated that it did not notify Congress about the hospital changes because it was only a reduction of services.
In February, a federal district judge in the District of Columbia granted a temporary restraining order to keep the federal health agency from making deeper cuts. With the order expected to expire April 2, Gov. Brian Vallo of the Pueblo of Acoma said the tribe was exploring ways to address the health care issue it was facing by drawing on the new funding in the relief package.
“We will definitely be looking at ways to be investing the money into a tribal initiative to establish long-term health care options for the Acoma people, and we hope that Indian Health Service headquarters and the Albuquerque area office will invest some of the funds they are receiving into the ACL hospital service unit,” Vallo said.