Many of the sovereign nations in the US struggle with housing and healthcare shortages, both of which are likely to be exacerbated as the numbers of COVID-19 cases increase on tribal lands.
As of March 25, the Navajo Epidemiology Center of the Navajo Department of Health reported 69 cases of COVID-19 in Arizona and New Mexico. On pueblo lands, it's unclear which of New Mexico's COVID-19 cases could be tribal members. The governor's spokesman confirmed Thursday night that the state only reports by counties, which might overlap with pueblo land.
A potential financial bandaid for the tribes could be on the way with the US Senate's unanimous approval of a $2 trillion emergency relief bill now heading for the House, allocating $10 billion for the nation's Indigenous peoples. The House hopes to take up the bill Friday.
US Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, who also serves on the Indian Affairs Committee, told reporters in a phone call Thursday that $8 billion would come through a tribal stabilization fund that aims to deliver reimbursements for pandemic-related costs and funding for the Indian Health Service.
Federal agencies such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Indian Education and the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development would use about $2 billion to assist tribal government., "The infrastructure that's set up right now that's dealing with the tribes on a daily basis has a huge influx of dollars in order to take care of this crisis," Udall says.
But he also acknowledged that it's not enough.
"We were asking for a lot more, we think the need is a lot bigger than $8 billion."
Udall and others on the Indian Affairs Committee originally asked for $20 billion and that's "what it should be at," according to the senator. But in negotiations with the White House, he says the lawmakers eventually settled on the lower number.
The $2 billion that will go straight to government agencies for disbursement came from similar numbers the federal government gave to sovereign nations as aid during the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.
"Tribes in the entire history have never had [a stabilization fund]," Udall says. "Now that we have it, we'll monitor how it's working and we'll fight to make sure if the tribes need additional resources they get them. We're already working on the next legislative package. There's going to be a focus on infrastructure. But if we see that various places have more pressure and more needs, we're going to try and add that to the infrastructure package."
A lack of housing leads to overcrowding in homes, which is a major health issue as COVID-19 spreads. Sovereign nations have faced federal underfunding for decades, especially in the more rural areas of New Mexico.
Udall says he knows that tribes are "frustrated" that it took a pandemic to bring more attention to the desperate need for more infrastructure.
"They've always been frustrated about the housing," Udall says. "The housing dollars have not been there for the tribes. We fight every year to push that number up. The good thing about this [pandemic] is we have a bit of infusion into housing."
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez thanked the federal government partners and Congress on Tuesday in a Facebook video, noting the feds had sent shipments of masks from the national stockpile.
"But we do need more to be here at the Navajo Nation," Nez says through a face mask.