COVID-19’s impact on the Native American community

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From coast to coast, outrage over the murder of George Floyd has brought to bear what Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) have always known: That “normal” meant gross inequities and the continued oppression of BIPOC.

For months now, COVID-19 has been redoubling the gaps in white privilege that have always existed. If higher death rates among Black and Brown people laid bare the structural weakness of “normal,” then protests over Floyd’s death are the wrecking ball that will finally bring it to the ground. And it’s about time.

What, after all, was considered “normal” before?

For Native Americans normal was the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which unlawfully exploited our indigenous lands and imperiled the health of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation.

It was 90,000 homeless or under-housed families, with overcrowding plaguing an estimated 30 percent of households.

It was the fact that Native American families are 400 percent more likely than others in the country to not have enough to eat.

It was a history of poor health care, curtailing the life expectancy of Native Americans in some states by 20 years below the national average. 

More than half of Indian Country is geographically isolated, making it difficult to access jobs, education, and healthcare off the reservation. The quintessential American concept of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps doesn’t work, because you don’t have boots to start within Indian Country. As a result, rural communities often have no choice but to rely on the federal government for assistance, which has proven time and time again to be inadequate. Without robust economic systems of our own, we’re more vulnerable to exploitation, like the demand that the Oglala Sioux Tribe remove the checkpoints it set up to protect itself from coronavirus.

The arrival of COVID-19 has only magnified the injustices that have always existed, from lack of access to running water for hand-washing to overcrowding in our homes that make social distancing impossible.

Though its effects have been devastating, the pandemic has left in its wake an opportunity for seismic change. With these inequities now truly exposed, it’s time to reimagine what “normal” can mean, and the role that infrastructure can play in developing a resilient and self-determined economy.

The groundwork for such economies has already been laid. In Phoenix, the non-profit Native American Connections owns and operates 459 affordable units of transit-oriented and sustainable housing, enabling residents to easily access jobs, hospitals, education, and other services. The result is a self-sustaining system that lifts up tribal populations while working within the framework of a traditional development model. 

When Pacific Gas & Electric cut power to two million people in Northern California last year to reduce the risk of wildfires, the Blue Lake Rancheria tribe was able to rely on the microgrid it built on its reservation.

But not only did the network of solar panels, storage batteries, and distribution lines power the tribal community, it also served around 10,000 people off the reservation, becoming a crucial player in the state’s emergency response. In addition to quite literally putting power in the hands of the tribe, the microgrid has also reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 200 tons per year and saves Blue Lake Rancheria around $200,000 annually. 

In North Carolina, the Eastern Cherokee have used casino profits to opt-out of the federal government’s poorly managed Indian Health Service, taking charge of its own healthcare. The result has been the adoption of an integrated care model that improves patients’ health and addresses the needs of the tribe. And the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, which parted with the Indian Health Service in 1998, has been so successful that it partnered with the Department of Veteran Affairs to offer services to non-Native veterans.

In order to allow Native communities to thrive, the government needs to allow them the same sense of sovereignty enjoyed by states. It’s been proven time and time again that when tribes are put in charge of how their funds are spent, the results are stronger systems that build capacity, create economic opportunities, and respect the indigenous way of life.

This starts with allowing Indian Country to decide for itself how to spend the $8 billion allocated by the CARES Act, which should be given without strings attached. As with any local government, Native communities are best equipped to figure out our own priorities, and we deserve the same respect and independence as any other local government. This, in turn, will allow us to strengthen our communities by investing in our people and keeping dollars circulating locally. This is equality.

The pandemic has hit Indian Country especially hard. But these challenging times have made it more clear than ever that now is the time to move away from our past reliance on government support, building instead of our own sustainable, resilient systems that will allow us to not just survive but flourish.

Joseph Kunkel is a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation. He is currently the director of the Sustainable Native Communities Design Lab based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, operating within MASS Design Group. His work explores how architecture, planning, and construction can be leveraged to positively impact Indian Country. In 2019 Joseph was awarded an Obama Foundation Fellowship for his work exploring how to create transformational change through design that aligns with indigenous values and honors the worldviews of indigenous populations within North America. 


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