A virtual hearing held by a U.S. House committee this week showed bipartisan support for addressing the health care and public infrastructure needs of tribal nations.

As COVID-19 strains their social services, tribes should receive more funding for health care, water and electricity access, and internet connectivity, said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) on the July 8 hearing of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

“Day after day, our nation’s tribal communities are suffering terrible inequities,” he said. “Unreliable funding from the federal government and other systemic problems that have created unnecessary hardship and turmoil…. This is a disgrace.”

More Social Services and Infrastructure

Since the federal government’s forceful removal and systematic genocide of Native American tribes from 1830-1860, the government returned some land, and promised funds for public services such as education and healthcare, said witness Jonathan Nez, President of the Navajo Nation. 

However, the witnesses, all tribal leaders, unanimously agree that more needs to be done to solve the inequities, exacerbated by COVID-19, that tribal nations face.

“The federal government has consistently neglected its legal obligations,” said witness Fawn Sharp, President of the National Congress of American Indian. “Not one federal agency is living up to its responsibilities. There is widespread chronic underfunding… in every sector affecting our lives and community.”

The leaders see health care, public infrastructure, and internet accessibility as their most urgent concerns. 

“[Due to the lack of electricity and internet access] our students are unable to participate in distanced learning and our elders unable to connect with their health care providers,” said Christine Sage, Chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, a native American reservation in southwest Colorado.

Christine Sage

According to Sage, the tribe has about 5,000 members in Colorado. It covers the higher education expenses of its students and provides the community with free health care. It is also “the largest employer in southwest Colorado,” she said. 

“Miles of vital agricultural infrastructure is dilapidated due to decades of neglect,” said Sage, who demands more government funding. “This prohibits the expansion of our rural economy [and] limits the potential for new businesses and employment.” 

She is also concerned with unemployment and economic stagnation in her tribe, especially in light of the decline of oil and gas prices due to COVID-19. Oil and gas exports “are vital to the tribe’s economy,” she said. 

All witnesses agree that similar challenges are faced by tribal nations across the nation.

According to Nez, “The Navajo Nation [on the West Coast] has a poverty rate of more than 40 percent and sits on some of the most remote, challenging, and sparsely populated terrain in the country.” 

Additionally, 40 percent of households do not have running water or safe drinking water, making it hard to maintain the hygiene standards required in the health crisis. On top of that, 10,000 homes also lack electricity, he said. 

“Two-thirds of people living on rural tribal lands have no internet connectivity,” said Pallone.

The lack of electricity and broadband internet access makes remoting learning and working especially hard for tribal families, said Nez. 

“Six percent of Alaskan American Indian households lack access to running water,” said witness Charles Grim, Secretary of Chickasaw Nation’s Department of Health. “The current lack of funding for tribal health facilities leaves us unprepared for another wave.”   

“In the area of health care, tribal communities experience greater health disparities compared to other groups, which increases their risks of hospitalization due to COVID-19 and associated complications,” agrees Pallone. 

“This existing crisis created disparities that resulted in our communities having the highest per-capita COVID-19 infection rate in the U.S.,” said Sharp.

Systematic Problems: Funds and Regulations

National tribes have encountered many systematic obstacles such as delays in funding and restrictive regulations impeding their economic and social development, according to Nez, Sage, Sharp, and witness Pilar M. Thomas, a former attorney of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona. 

According to Nez, it takes up to two to three years for new public electric-grid infrastructures in Navajo Nation to pass local government regulations. 

Regulations stunt the business and innovation in the Ute Tribe, according to Sage. 

She refers to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) as an example of regulations that “hinder [the tribe’s] preservation development and construction.” She believes that the tribe should be allowed to develop and administer its own environmental policies instead of being subject to NEPA.”

Sage said the Ute Tribe has also experienced “continuous delays” in its business fundings, which are “often so restrictive it makes it difficult to put them to good use.” 

Nez points out that the House has continuously delayed a bill providing funding for water resources and health care for American Indian communities. The Navajo Nation also experienced weeks of delay in their CARES Act fundings, according to Nez. 

“It’s outrageous that we still do not have fundings that Congress appropriated three months ago,” said Sharp.  

Thomas pushes for legal reforms that repeal unnecessary regulations hindering Native American development and new legislation enforcing the timely delivery of funds. 

Sage agrees and believes that the federal government should be more transparent with legislative and bureaucratic processes involving native communities. She urges the government to “consult [tribal leaders] before putting forward policies and regulations, as it often lacks understanding of how tribal governments and businesses operate.”

When asked whether the Trump administration made any attempts to reach out to tribal leaders regarding their views and interests, Nez and Sage said they have not received anything.

Federal and Local Aid

Recent legislation addressing the needs of tribal nations has been proposed on both federal and state levels. 

According to Pallone, the Congress’s Moving Forward Act last month would grant tribal communities $5 billion for health facilities, $80 billion for broadband deployment, $47 billion for drinking water programs, and $50 million for energy access.

However, the bill is still a long way from becoming a law, according to a Forbes article.

Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO)

Colorado Senator Michael Bennet also proposed a bill June 30, providing funds for more broadband deployment projects on tribal land. 

Sage endorses the bill and appreciates Bennet’s support. 

“Fifty years ago the federal government was able to look at the mistakes of the past, learn from them, and assist tribes in a process of achieving self-determination,” she said. “Today we, likewise, can look at the events of the past few months, identify the weaknesses in our federal-tribal trust relationship that have been revealed by this crisis, learn from them, and correct them.”