White House: Vice President Pence and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force Hold a Press Briefing

Tribes test Trump administration's commitment with coronavirus crisis

Concerns about the coronavirus are spreading in tribal communities even as advocates and key members of Congress push the Trump administration to ensure Indian Country is at the table when decisions are made.

Over the weekend, two large land-based tribes in South Dakota imposed travel restrictions in response to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Leaders cited a need to protect their already vulnerable communities, where health resources remain woefully inadequate.

"This ban is necessary given the spread of the COVID-19 virus," Rosebud Sioux Tribe President Rodney Bordeaux said on Friday in announcing a restriction on government-funded travel to areas in the United States where coronavirus cases have been documented. "There are too many unknowns and lack of test kits to determine who may be carrying it."

The Oglala Sioux Tribe followed up with its own coronavirus travel ban on Sunday. President Julian Bear Runner even encouraged outsiders not to come to the Pine Ridge Reservation in order to prevent COVID-19 from reaching his people.

"In the event that anyone must travel for essential governmental purposes, they must acquire the president's approval, which may be granted on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of the president," the executive order banning tribally-funded trips stated.

Amid the concerns, Indian Country organizations are keeping a close eye on the coronavirus as they prepare to welcome tribal leaders to their events. As of Friday, the Native American Finance Officers Association said its 38th annual convention, taking place in Nashville, Tennessee next month, will go on as planned.

"NAFOA is taking precautions to ensure the health of event participants; and is consulting the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local public health authorities," the organization said in an announcement regarding the April 6-7 event. " With the situation evolving, we encourage NAFOA participants to consult these sources as they prepare for the event."

Closer on the calendar is the longest running gaming trade show in the U.S. The National Indian Gaming Association said the event, taking place in San Diego, California, will go on as well in just two weeks.

”We strongly advise that all exhibitors and visitors review all updates and bulletins for travel and health notices at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website," NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr., a citizen of the Oneida Nation, said in encouraging preparations for the March 24-27 conference. "Our tradeshow team is working closely with the San Diego Convention and Tourism Authority, as well as local hotels, to ensure preventive measures are in place to keep our attendees safe and surrounded by the best sanitary conditions available.”

But others are taking a different approach. The American Indian Law Alliance canceled a speech in which the impact of Haudenosaunee society on the women's movement was to be discussed in New York City on Monday.

"On the one hand we want to elevate Indigenous voices and foreground Indigenous labor past and present but we also wanted to mindful of doing our part to care for each other and help folks flourish," the organization said in a social media post.

John Kane, a Mohawk journalist who hosts the Let's Talk Native radio show, also took action. He is suspending travel to and from New York City due to the rising number of cases of the coronavirus in the region.

"My travel to the City involves almost 20 hours of public transportation in and out of one of the country’s hot zones,"
Kane wrote on Monday. Let's Talk Native will continue to air, but remotely, he added.

With more than 500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., including nearly two dozen deaths, and more than 110,000 worldwide, Congress reacted on Friday with passage of H.R.6074, the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act. The bill authorizes federal agencies -- including the Department of Health and Human Services, where the Indian Health Service is housed -- to spend $8.3 billion to address the coronavirus outbreak

"While the Trump administration has repeatedly demonstrated a failure to understand public health needs, Congress is acting with the seriousness and sense of urgency the coronavirus threat demands,” said Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-New York), who chairs the House Committee on Appropriations.

President Donald Trump quickly signed H.R.6074 into law on Friday yet continues to downplay the impacts of the virus, which has caused upheaval in the financial markets and in the economic sector, as travel restrictions and event cancellations have shown. In a social media post on Monday, he said more Americans contract and die from the flu every year.

"Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!" Trump wrote.

Even before official Washington took action, tribal advocates were pushing the U.S. to live up to its trust and treaty responsibilities to the first Americans. With passage of the supplemental appropriations bill, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been authorized to provide $40 million for Indian Country's coronavirus efforts. The money will go to tribes, urban Indian organizations and other health providers in Native communities.

The amount was far less than the $94 million initially requested by the National Council of Urban Indian Health. But the organization said H.R.6074 represented a "major victory" because the U.S., in the past, has failed to include urban Indian providers altogether in prevention efforts. The overwhelming majority of American Indians and Alaska Natives live in urban areas.

“NCUIH is glad to see Congress come together so quickly to provide the critical funding necessary to protect the health of American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) patients across Indian Country, particularly to protect those AI/ANs who live within cities and urban areas, where the COVID-19 is spreading at a rapid pace," said Francys Crevier, a citizen of the Algonquin First Nation who serves as the organization's executive director.

With spending decisions now in the hands of the executive branch, key lawmakers want to make sure Indian Country gets access to the same COVID-19 information provided to states and local governments. They are also calling on the IHS to be included in the Trump administration's COVID-19 task force, which is being led by Vice President Mike Pence.

"While the IHS serves as the primary agency charged with provision of AI/AN healthcare, all federal healthcare-related programs and initiatives – including the COVID-19 response – share equally in the requirement to fulfill these trust and treaty obligations," the 27 members of the U.S. Senate wrote in a letter to Pence last Thursday.

The concerns are bipartisan. Two Republicans -- Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both from Alaska -- joined 25 Democratic colleagues, led by Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, in seeking to uphold the U.S. government's commitments in Indian Country.

White House: President Trump Visits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Tribes also want to make sure the money is spent in a manner consistent with their government-to-government agreements. Following a conference call last Thursday in which more than 200 took part, the National Indian Health Board called on the Trump administration to transfer the $40 million provided by H.R.6074 to the IHS "for immediate distribution."

"Authorizing an interagency transfer of funds from CDC to IHS would assist in guaranteeing that the entire Indian health system is included in response efforts," NIHB Chairwoman Victoria Kitcheyan, a citizen of the Winnebago Tribe, wrote in a letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar on Monday.

"In addition, transferring the funds to IHS would allow funds to be distributed according to IHS rules and regulations, thus allowing self-governance tribes to receive COVID-19 funds under P.L. 93-638 self-determination or self-governance contracts and compacts," Kitcheyan said of the agreement authorized by the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, also known as Public Law 93-638.

According to Title III of the coronavirus appropriations act, "not less than" $40 million shall be provided to Indian Country. NIHB is calling on Azar to triple the "inadequate" amount, bringing the set-aside to a total of $120 million.

"If the $40 million in set aside funds were to be equally distributed across all of Indian Country, it would amount to only $65,000 per Tribal Nation and Urban Indian Organizations, which is entirely inadequate," Kitcheyan told Azar, who was not on stage during the White House Coronavirus Task Force press briefing on Friday but was at Trump's side for the signing of the appropriations measure.

The IHS, despite being charged with providing and overseeing health care to about 2.6 million American Indians and Alaska Natives, lacks a permanent leader. The agency is being overseen by principal deputy director Michael Weahkee, whose nomination as director has stalled on Capitol Hill.

"We stand ready to work you to ensure the Indian health system is fully prepared to address this health emergency," Kitcheyan wrote on behalf of NIHB.

The IHS has been taking steps since January to address the coronavirus, following its emergence in China a month prior. The agency's website currently contains a stark warning about the crisis.

"The potential public health threat posed by COVID-19 is very high," IHS says.

With Secretary of Health and Human Services Alez Azar at his side, President Donald Trump takes questions from the press following the signing of H.R.6074, the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, into law on March 6, 2020. Photo: Tia Dufour / White House

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