‘A Very Limited Budget’

State departments do not have specific plans for financially assisting pueblos, tribes, Navajo Nation in case of an outbreak of COVID-19

As the COVID-19 outbreak hits New Mexico, state departments do not have specific plans to support its 23 different pueblos and tribes. People on tribal lands face the same problems as the rest of the state, such as shortages of toilet paper and canned goods and difficulty accessing testing, according to the state Indian Affairs Department. But those challenges come without the same resources and variety of incomes as cities and counties.  
“The department has a very limited budget, so we are working with this administration as well as our federal partners to leverage resources to support tribal communities,” writes New Mexico Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo. “We will continue to look at a variety of mechanisms to potentially provide support as needed.” 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has equally nondescript strategies for assisting tribes as major revenue losses follow the closing of the casinos. Tribal lands are not exempt from the virus. Thirty-nine cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Navajo Nation, according to reporting by the Navajo Times

On March 18,  New Mexico In Depth reported Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez asking tourists to “stay at home” as tourist areas closed. Leaders are not waiting for the state to offer help. On Friday, the Navajo Nation Council passed legislation asking Lujan Grisham for access to Medicaid dollars to fight the spread of the virus. 

Lujan Grisham’s spokesman Tripp Stelnicki writes SFR via email Monday that it’s “hard to be specific about financial assistance for tribes or any entity, as we want to see what the federal package looks like before the state starts making wide-scale plans.”

According to Trujillo, the sovereign nations are most concerned about protecting the health of vulnerable elders and first responders. She also says there are “very real” concerns about access to food and water in the more rural parts of the state as the virus spreads. 
Some of the smaller tribes rely on casinos for a sizable chunk of their income. With those closed, Trujillo says the Department of Workforce Solutions is working “directly with tribal casinos to provide unemployment benefits to those who qualify.” 
The state’s Children Youth and Families Department, the Early Childhood Education & Care Department and the Public Education Department have set up meal pick-up sites for children in tribal communities. 

While state departments wait to see what happens on the federal level, US Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, hopes to pass the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Tribal Public Health Security and Preparedness Act as part of the Senate’s third Coronavirus relief package. 

The bill would give pueblos the ability to apply directly to the CDC for public health emergency preparedness (PHEP) funding.  As of now, tribal nations can only access this funding if the state plans include them. 

New Mexico’s plan does, and the pueblos can continue with their PHEP partnerships with the state. But the bill would allow the pueblos to exercise tribal sovereignty and administer the program directly to their members if they wanted to. Examples of reasons why tribes would choose this option include if they are not receiving sufficient resources for tribal public health emergency planning, supplies, or staffing. 

“Too often in the past, Indian Country has had to bear the worst costs in national emergencies and public health crises–whether because of poor coordination and planning from the federal government, because of the unique health care challenges facing Native communities, or a combination of factors,” Udall said in a statement. “We need to act fast to make sure that dire consequences of COVID-19 don’t hit tribes the hardest.” 

Back in Santa Fe, Marvin Gabaldón, a data technician and leader of the Indigenous Peoples’ Club at Santa Fe Community College, tells SFR many of his Indigenous students’ are worried about not being able to fly back to their reservations in the Dakotas and Montana and about the state of tribal economies following the closing of casinos.

"My tribe, we have gas stations, we have construction, we have government contracts, so I think we're fine," Gabaldón, of Ohkay Owingeh, tells SFR. "For Easter we're supposed to dance and we haven't heard anything if we're gonna do it or not. The funny thing is, the dances are about prayer, it's about healing, but because this virus is so scary, I don't know if they'll allow it. The real traditional people think we're not supposed to make changes in how we do things. There's a conflict there in itself. We'll have to see."

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