Native American tribal nations take tougher line on COVID-19 as states reopen
Native American tribal nations are imposing stricter lockdown and social-distancing measures than their neighboring states, creating tensions with both governors and the federal government.
Many Native American leaders are worried that the recent surge in cases could disproportionately impact tribal members, just as they did in April and May. In response, some tribal governments have exercised their sovereignty to reinstate lockdowns and travel bans as neighboring states move in the opposite direction.
“It’s a greater challenge for us to deal with knowing that just right across the borders, everyone else is doing things different,” Cheyenne River Sioux chairman Harold Frazier told The Hill.
“It makes it a lot tougher for us to implement the actions that we feel we need to do to keep our residents safe here on the reservation,” he said.
South Dakota, where Frazier’s reservation is located, never imposed a statewide stay-at-home order.
In April, both the Cheyenne River and the Oglala Sioux tribes installed checkpoints on the roads into their reservations, drawing the ire of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), who threatened a lawsuit in May but never followed through. Later that month she asked President Trump to intervene.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs is now threatening to withdraw law enforcement funding if he does not remove the checkpoints, Frazier said.
But with only eight hospital beds on the reservation and the nearest critical care facility three hours away, Frazier said he plans to keep the checkpoints in place until there is a vaccine, fighting the government in court if need be.
“We have to,” he said. “I mean, what’s our alternative? Death.”
The Bureau of Indian Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.
Native Americans have contracted and died from the virus at disproportionate rates largely due to historical inequities, including higher rates of preexisting conditions and poor health care infrastructure on reservations.
In May, the Navajo Nation surpassed New York as the region with the highest coronavirus infection rate per capita in the United States.
An analysis by American Public Media found that the mortality rate among Indigenous Americans is well above that of whites. In New Mexico, which borders Navajo Nation, Native Americans account for 60 percent of the deaths, despite making up only 9 percent of the state’s population.
Since March, many tribal nations across the country have taken stricter measures against COVID-19 than neighboring states and jurisdictions. Tribal governments have closed borders to non-residents, imposed curfews and instituted mandatory mask rules.
Several tribal nations still have stay-at-home orders in place, even though states have partially or completely lifted those restrictions.
The Navajo Nation on Thursday reimposed lockdowns for the next two weekends as cases in neighboring Arizona and Utah have spiked in recent weeks. The Navajo Nation had already extended its stay-in-place order and mandated wearing masks in public, even as Arizona declined to take such measures.
“With the state of Arizona relaxing its precautions and allowing its stay-at-home order to expire, the metropolitan areas are seeing dramatic increases of COVID-19 cases,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said last week. “It only takes a few people traveling to Phoenix or other hotspots to catch the virus and start another wave of new cases here on the Navajo Nation.”
Some tribal nations bucking the trend of state reopenings have faced questions over their sovereign authority. The ACLU of South Dakota backed the Cheyenne River and Oglala Sioux’s legal authority to install checkpoints.
Frazier attributed low case numbers on his reservation to the checkpoints — only six cases have been reported — and said lack of access to medical care forced him to restrict travel.
“They provide the lowest level of care here at our health facility, there’s only eight beds when you have 10 to 12 thousand residents,” he said. “The nearest place for critical care is a three hour drive away. That’s why we’re forced to do these things.”
In late March, the Nisqually nation near Olympia, Wash., closed its reservation borders to non-members.
Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.), who represents the district, said in a statement that the federal government has a duty to honor the sovereignty of tribal nations.
“Many Tribes are experiencing infection rates far higher than the general population,” he told The Hill. “It is up to the federal government to support – not hinder – Tribes’ efforts to stop the spread of the virus.”
Heck said the government should freely share data with tribal health organizations and help tribal governments address affordable housing shortages.
Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, said several factors explain why tribal nations feel the need to maintain a strict stance even as neighboring states open up.
Primarily, a focus on the health and safety of elders is “at the forefront of the tribal decision making,” she said.
“Because of drastically underfunded health care programs and the fact that Native people are very vulnerable because of high risk factors such as cardiovascular diabetes, they’re doing everything they can to protect their people.”
Jade Begay, creative director at the NDN Collective — a nonprofit that advocates for tribal nations’ sovereignty — said governments need to recognize that their reopenings might be putting Native American communities at higher risk.
“Unfortunately, I haven’t seen many states or cities really reckon and grapple with the fact that tribal infrastructure has been neglected and defunded for a long time,” she said.
Some people in Navajo Nation do not even have access to running water, let alone high-quality medical care, Begay added.
The federal government has obligations under the Constitution and treaties to provide health services to members of federally recognized tribal nations.
In a statement, the Indian Health Service (IHS) said it has implemented a “comprehensive public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Indian Country.”
IHS said it had distributed more than 60 million units of personal protective equipment and achieved a testing rate of 11.7 percent, compared to an overall U.S. rate of 7.1 percent.
IHS said that it has received $2.4 billion for Indian health programs’ coronavirus response, which has been used to expand testing, public health surveillance, and health care services, particularly to address disparities in health status among Native Americans.
Setu Vora, chief medical officer of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in Connecticut, said that tribal nations in New London County made a decision to close earlier than the state — a decision Vora credited for the county having “crushed the curve.”
“It may have appeared as disproportionate to many folks around us because the case load in Connecticut was low at that time,” he said. “But we believed that was the right thing to do at the time, even if it came at a huge financial cost.”
The Mashantucket Pequot closed their Foxwoods Resort casino March 17, the same day the Mohegan Tribe closed their nearby Mohegan Sun casino.
And while many tribal nations have exercised sovereignty to implement stricter regulations than neighboring jurisdictions, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan drew criticism from the state for doing the opposite: reopening their casinos June 1, weeks earlier than Connecticut’s reopening plan specified.
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) even considered pulling the casinos’ state-issued liquor licenses, according to the Associated Press. The tribes invited state officials to inspect the safety procedures they planned to implement and Lamont settled on putting up highway signs warning of the COVID-19 risks posed by visiting the casinos.
Vora said the tribes felt confident in the precautions, which include mandatory masking for guests and employees, walk-through thermal scanners at all entrances and enhanced disinfection procedures.
Vora said resiliency is the “hallmark” of tribal nations, which has allowed them to weather the pandemic, despite sometimes diverging from the actions of neighboring jurisdictions.
“The tribe that was once thought to be extinct, it has persisted over thousands of years,” he said. “That’s in the DNA.”
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