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Native Americans and the Coronavirus: Vulnerable Again

by John Aquino on 04/06/20

Their story is well known.  At the end of the Indian Wars as the 20th Century dawned, there were just over 200,000 Native American who were forced to live on reservations. Their number had been reduced by genocide and disease from a population that was once over 20 times an had once dominated the entire country.  As we have remained at home due to the cornavirus, a neighbor asked for a book to read and mentioned Dee Brown's 1970 Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which describes in detail the displacement of Native Americans. We were happy to lend it to her. And although the number of those who identify themselves as Native Americans grew during the 20th century, they were not well treated. When I was executive director of a tribal environmental association 15 years ago, a study we helped develop estimated the number of hazardous waste sites that existed on tribal land, which were mostly the result of dumping that the U.S. government had permitted over the years (see http://www.zendergroup.org/docs/Final_Report.pdf ; that report is still the last study of the topic I have been able to find. 


And now, Native Americans are bracing for the onslaught of the coronavirus and everything that comes with it.

Native Americans have especially high rates of diabetes, cancer, hypertension, kidney disease, and asthma, which makes them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.  About half of Native Americans live on reservations in close-knit communities that operate in a way that is the opposite of the social distancing that is recommended to combat the virus. Some homes do not have running water, which makes the continued hand-washing recommended to guard against the virus, difficult, and have multi-generational residents living in close quarters. Poverty is not uncommon. (At the association I managed, we used to provide travel and housing funding for tribal members to attend our conferences. I discovered that some of those who were sent to attend had no money to eat while at the conference. ) Medical facilities may be few and not well-equipped; the federal agency that provides medical assistance has long been underfunded. 

It is true that some tribes have prospered as a result of allowing casinos on their land and used their share of the revenue to provide health and educational services for their peoples. But only 240 of the 570 federally-recognized tribes have casinos, and not all of them are as large and successful as the Mohegan Sun or the Foxwood Resort. While non- or small-casinoed tribes may be especially ill-prepared to deal with the coronavirus, more prosperous ones have another problem. As a result of the virus, Native American casinos are closed or closing, and the revenue elimination (an estimated $37 billion) and unemployment (an estimated 700,000 direct and indirect jobs) are massive

The National Congress for American Indians asked Congress for $20 billion to compensate for job loss and economic instability. The Native American Gaming Industry requested $18 billion. According to the Huffington Post, the Trump Administration wanted to give them $0, But members of Congress, primarily Democrats, got that up to $10 billion--$8 billion from a newly-created tribal stabilization fund and $2 billion from a supplemental appropriation. The lobbying efforts on behalf of Native Americans has become more efficient, thanks to the fact that casino tribes have become a major employer.

The money to be provided, however, is half of what tribes requested, and the $8 billion from the tribal stabilization fund requires the tribe to certify the specific health-related needs to the Secretary of the Treasury. The president of the Navaho Nation told the Washington Post that the money should have gone directly to the tribes as it has to the states and that, once again, the federal government had put tribes at the bottom of the list and forced them to beg for money.

The upcoming weeks will be a difficult time for all. But once again, Native Americans may be especially vulnerable.

Copyright 2020 by John T. Aquino


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