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The United States Is Still Wronging Its Indigenous Communities

Wapato Native Americans assemble care packages in July, 2020. Image via Mason Trinca/The New York Times

The age-adjusted Covid-19 mortality rate is now higher for American Indians and Alaska Natives (AIAN) than for any other group. Those dying of Covid-19 in AIAN communities also tend to be much younger than white victims, with more than 40 percent of AIAN Covid-19 victims being under 65 compared to just 11 percent of white Covid-19 victims. The Navajo Nation had a Covid-19 death toll higher than 15 states in June 2020. 

From an economic perspective, Indigenous communities in the United States have been incredibly hard hit by the pandemic through a loss of billions of dollars in income and an inability to provide basic services to their populations. Tribal casinos were not eligible for the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, meaning that many of them went into millions of dollars of debt just to stay in business even though many of them are the primary or sole source of income for these communities. They then had to fight to be included in the second wave of PPP loans and were only informed of their eligibility three days before applications were due, leaving many unable to file. These loans also only applied to businesses with less than 125 employees, excluding a sizable number of these casinos, and, even if applications were approved, they were at the end of the list and had their funding incredibly delayed. 

Recognizing the uniquely detrimental impact of Covid-19 on Indigenous communities, it’s clear that the United States is not properly upholding its obligations to these communities as enshrined by native treaties. With a few exceptions, the US Constitution grants native tribes the same powers as federal and state governments to regulate their domestic affairs. Tribes ceded huge swaths of their lands to the United States through formal treaties with a commitment by the federal government to protect the tribes as sovereign political entities whose right to self-governance it would safeguard and to whom it would provide adequate resources to deliver essential services. Under the federal Indian trust responsibility, the United States has subjected itself to a legally enforceable fiduciary obligation to protect tribal treaty rights, lands, assets, and resources. The Supreme Court has also suggested that it entails legal duties, moral obligations, and the fulfillment of understandings and expectations that have arisen over the entire course of the relationship between the United States and the federally recognized tribes. Understanding that the United States continues to benefit from tribal land and revenue, the federal government must take immediate action to fulfill its reciprocal obligations to Indigenous communities as enshrined in the various treaties, specifically by financially stabilizing tribal populations and expanding basic infrastructure access.

Native Americans have historically been harmed by the actions of the US government, whether through state-sponsored mass relocations and genocides, such as the Trail of Tears, or a slew of broken treaties that have cost tribes millions of dollars, acres of land, and basic human rights. While these harms are often seen as “in the past,” it is forgotten that Indigenous communities continue to be uniquely harmed by various nationwide crises as a result of this same inequality. 

During the 2019 government shutdown, many Native American tribes were harmed as a result of their disproportionate reliance on federal programs and high rates of poverty. At least one quarter of Native Americans live in poverty, and tribes were unable to access adequate food, shelter, medical services, and clothing while federal funding was prevented from reaching reservations. Many of these communities also lack basic infrastructure for things like running water, meaning that they rely on government services to provide it or, like the 70,000 Navajos with no running water, must travel several miles to wells and haul water back to their homes. Even when the shutdown ended, funding and access to other programs were still delayed, resulting in unnecessary harm. 

The United States has also historically profited off Indigenous lands while overlooking their suffering. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 reiterated that tribes can open gaming facilities on tribal lands but, as a result of Justice Marshall’s various decisions on related Supreme Court cases, the US government was charged as a trustee for tribes in which it promised to provide for the health and welfare of the tribes. A certain percentage of casino profits had to be spent on community benefits, such as education or community resources, while another portion was collected by the government as a way of getting income from tribes while still respecting their exemption from taxes. Ignoring the the plight that these communities face when they happen to lose money from casinos—while still forcing them to give a share of their revenues to the government—furthers historical wrongs.

Indigenous communities are also a uniquely vulnerable demographic in the United States. During the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the Native American population faces disproportionate harm compared to other demographic groups as a result of high poverty and unemployment rates, reliance on federal services, and a lack of infrastructure. While community issues were exacerbated by the mass layoffs that occurred early in the pandemic and access to federal services became further delayed as a result of a larger population requiring government assistance, long-term stability was also denied from tribes. Native Americans have the highest rates of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, inhalant, and hallucinogen use disorders compared to other ethnic groups. The overall rate of substance abuse is also higher among Native Americans than any other population in the country. This substance abuse can be traced back to high unemployment rates, low school completion rates, underdeveloped support systems, the unmet developmental needs of children, the loss of culture and traditional values, high rates of trauma and loss, and normative rates of use by peers. As of 2019, just 25 percent of Native Americans over the age of 25 had an associate degree or higher, compared to 42 percent of those over the age of 25. The American Indian and Alaska Native population (used as a benchmark for the overall Native American population) has also consistently had a higher unemployment rate than the rest of the US population, enduring a seven-year period of over 10 percent unemployment while the white population has never surpassed 10 percent. 55 percent of Native Americans also report negative interactions with police and incidents of racial discrimination. 

Addressing the needs of US Indigenous communities is incredibly complex and requires immediate government attention. In order for the federal government to better uphold its obligations under various existing treaties, large-scale improvements to Indigenous infrastructure, economic potential and longevity, and governmental accountability are needed. In regards to infrastructure, increased federal funding towards historically underfunded Indian health centers, the Indian Health Service (IHS) and other medical resources, and establishing utility stations for water, power, and other services would provide immediate relief to millions while also better protecting these populations during shutdowns or national emergencies. This increase in funding could coincide with an expansion of existing nationwide native infrastructure like the IHS, which currently provides care for AIAN populations but isn’t able to provide assistance at any location due to funding shortages, an absence of government cooperation, and infrastructure limitations. 

Other infrastructure improvements include better maintaining tribal roads to connect Indigenous populations to essential services like schools, ensuring proper access to broadband service (around 35 percent of Americans living on tribal lands lack such access), prioritizing projects that give Indigenous populations the ability to collect their own safe drinking water, and addressing staffing vacancies, funding inadequacies, and poor management in certain federal programs that limit the delivery of basic services to many tribes. Infrastructure expansions should include increased oversight of federal facilities’ decisions regarding how to use federal funding, something which currently limits programs like the IHS’s ability to offer sufficient assistance.

Larger-scale solutions like state and federal-level legislation establishing AIAN emergency funds, increased funding towards AIAN communities in the form of grants or scholarships, or requiring specific levels of resource accessibility could all help address the problem as well. While unlikely, the federal government could also acknowledge its past and ongoing abuses of Indigenous communities and work to establish new, fairer treaties with US tribes under the oversight of various nonprofits or nonpartisan organizations to ensure increased equity and increase the legal merit for challenges to US policies that interfere with Indigenous quality of life. Improved government oversight, whether through legislation or increased capabilities for Indigenous populations to pursue legal challenges, would also lead to healthier Indigenous relationships with the government. Better oversight helps prevent national infrastructure projects harmful to natural or cultural tribal resources, like pipelines, from being implemented with legally insufficient tribal consultation as well. 

The US government has a history of cruelty and violence towards its Indigenous populations, working without regard for native welfare even today in the pursuit of profit. Enhancing the welfare of Indigenous communities would not only ensure that the United States is properly upholding its legal obligations to these communities under existing treaties, but also benefit the nation overall through lower rates of unemployment, poverty, and addiction as well as a general boost to economic output, education, and health. While no solution perfectly addresses existing inequalities or makes up for past transgressions, it’s essential that the government finally take responsibility for its actions and ensure an adequate quality of life for the millions of Indigenous Americans living within its borders.