American Rescue Plan: Is It A Turning Point For Native American Communities?

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Medical worker Melissa Fitzgerald, left, begins to weep in an emotional response after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination from registered nurse Alyssa Lane Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020, on the Lummi Reservation, near Bellingham, Wash. (Elaine Thompson/AP Photo)
Medical worker Melissa Fitzgerald, left, begins to weep in an emotional response after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination from registered nurse Alyssa Lane Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020, on the Lummi Reservation, near Bellingham, Wash. (Elaine Thompson/AP Photo)

President Biden's American Rescue Plan contains massive spending measures for Native American communities. What will it take to turn the dollars into actual transformation?  


Dante Desiderio, executive director of the non-profit NAFOA. (@nafoaorg)

Dr. Mary Owen, practicing family physician. President of the Association of American Indian Physicians. Director of the Center of American Indian and Minority Health at the University of Minnesota.

Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, which is located next to Phoenix, Arizona. (@stephenroelewis)

Interview Highlights

What difference will this $31 billion in resources make for Native communities?

Stephen Roe Lewis: “This funding is a historic level of funding for tribal governments, not just because of the amount of funding, but because of the equitable treatment of tribal governments. And ... the acknowledgment of tribal sovereignty and self-determination that have played just a tremendous amount of critical support in our response to this pandemic.

"You know, in the early days of the pandemic, what was missing for tribal governments was our federal partner. Our relationship is with the federal government, as sovereign tribal nations. It's a government to government relationship. And until this year, the pandemic response was delegated to the states. So there were a lot of gaps and inconsistencies of how tribes were treated.

“And we realized early on that we needed to be innovative and entrepreneurial to make sure our community did not become a hotspot. You know, despite the state of Arizona becoming one of the world's top hot spots during the pandemic, two separate times during this public health emergency. So this funding is timely because the community, as you know, we utilize all of our funding from the Cares Act. And this American Rescue Plan Act funding will not only see the community and other tribes through the pandemic, but will help us to put the tribal infrastructure in place, should we be faced with a similar situation in the future. But also address the disparities that have been persistent for decades and longer."

On the COVID pandemic’s impact on Native communities

Dante Desiderio: “The chronic underfunding by the federal government has been going on for generations. And that chronic underfunding had consequences during this pandemic. So Indian country had higher infection rates and higher death rates than any other population in the nation, especially early on in the pandemic. So the amount of funding allocated to tribal governments in the American Relief Plan, it won't solve everything, but it goes a long way in being able to address some of these social and economic disparities that have been laid bare during this crisis. And I'll give you a couple of examples.

“One is the inadequate funding for housing. We have the highest occupancy rates in housing in the country. And when a pandemic hits, and you have multigenerational housing and you have a community or Indian communities in general that have higher social interactions, it can be devastating during a pandemic. And the other part, and I know we'll get to this a little bit later, is the Indian Health Service has been chronically underfunded. So any surge at all means that we're at capacity pretty quickly. So we had to really scramble and get really creative. So some of the funds that have already been out, and trying to give us some support for the impacts, were good.

“I think for this conversation, more specifically the American Relief Plan, what it does is help us not just deal with the impacts like we have been in trying to organize these crisis centers to take care of our people and protect our people. But it's going to help us recover and hopefully come out of this crazy time, more prepared, more structured. And, you know, the hope would be that we also have more diverse economies.

"And just on that last point, we rely on economic development to fund our government programs and services because of this chronic underfunding by the federal government. So it goes beyond just an economic downturn. It's an economic and a government downturn. It's a funding crisis. And our industries are a huge part of our economy in general. And Indian country is in the hospitality space.

"So tourism, hotels, gaming and all of that. Completely shut down. Completely shut down. So you had in Indian country ... multiple crises that were hitting, the economic and the health care. So going forward in the American Relief Plan, there's this idea that. One, it's going to be a longer time period, which is very hopeful. There's a bit of infrastructure in there. So the idea is that we're going to build out, be able to be in a position to protect our people, have more diverse economies.”

On historic underfunding for Native American communities

Dante Desiderio: “I don't think we have to look that far back, because there hasn't really been too many historic spending packages for Indian country. It's a reason that tribes during the Self-determination Act during the 1970s under President Nixon, of all people, went toward self-determination for tribes. The federal government was realizing they weren't going to meet these obligations and tribes were going to try to grow their economies to be able to take care of this.

"The only reference we can go to is during the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, you know, just over a decade ago. And during that time, President Obama had provided significant resources, which we thought were, you know, it was about $2.7 billion, maybe $3 billion in resources, which effectively doubled the budget of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and got some help out in a programmatic way. I think what's different about this package, and its impact will be significantly better, because this is discretionary money. This is money. This is the federal government recognizing that tribes have the ability to know what's best for their own communities.

"... Every tribe is different. Every tribe has different historic consequences that they're working through. Every tribe has a different approach to developing their communities and different cultures. So this discretionary money is historic. The only thing we can turn to is significant funding before this was the Recovery Act and that went out through programs.”

On how ‘spiritual infrastructure' will help strengthen Native communities into the future

Dante Desiderio: “I see this in a much bigger picture. And the significance of this can't be lost here. So tribal leaders are different from every other elected leader in this country. They also have the responsibility of carrying on culture and carrying out ceremonial practices. So that makes these tribal leaders have the additional responsibility as well as the responsiveness to their community needs.

"The idea that we have the federal government stepping in to be able to say we're going to fund the preservation of languages and other cultural components of your communities, it's recognizing the tribal way of governing, and it's also a complete federal policy shift. And only in the last couple of years has this happened. The federal government was in the business before taking Native kids and sending them way to boarding schools to be taking away their languages.

“And they were also in the business of being able to tamp down on cultural activities. And the resurgence of the federal government, recognizing, one, the role of tribal leaders, but also recognizing how important culture is. It's not just for the tribal leaders. This is America's oldest languages. The tribal governments are the oldest governments. And we have the oldest cultures in this country. And I think it's so important as a national treasure to be able to go in this direction for the federal government.

"And when you look at what happened in the pandemic, the reason this is in there, or one of the reasons, is that the people who are most vulnerable were older language speakers and the people who tell the stories in our community. When we lose an elder to COVID, we often lose a bit of that culture. You know, I know in my community, the elders tell stories during our culture camp and pass along what life was like from when they were growing up and everything. It's a valuable resource for passing that on. So the significance of this, I think, is really important to note.”

From The Reading List

Indian Country Today: "$31 billion represents 'a massive opportunity'" — "The Indian health system will receive some $6 billion from the American Rescue Act. There is money for COVID-19 vaccines, testing, tracing, mitigation, and workforce expenses."

New York Times: "Tribal Communities Set to Receive Big New Infusion of Aid" — "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 Biden and Democrats in Congress are seeking to address those longstanding issues with a huge infusion of federal aid."

The Conversation: "‘Indian Country’ is excited about the first Native American secretary of the interior – and the promise she has for addressing issues of importance to all Americans" — "President Biden’s nomination of U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico to lead the Department of the Interior is historic on many levels. Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, was one of the first Native American women elected to Congress, along with U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas."

Indian Country Today: "American Rescue Plan: President Biden is standing by his word" — "On March 10, 2021—one year after the United States declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency—the U.S. House of Representatives is prepared to send the American Rescue Plan to President Biden’s desk, delivering on his number one promise to the American people: getting the virus under control by healing our citizens and our economies."

This program aired on March 23, 2021.


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Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.


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Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.



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