Interview with Bryan Brewer on Donald Trump Visit to Paha Sapa (Black Hills)

Thank you for joining for this live interview with Bryan Brewer, veteran and former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, as we discuss the upcoming visit to the Black Hills by President Donald Trump and efforts to protect reservation borders and protest the president's visit by Oglala Lakota veterans and citizens.

Posted by Indianz.Com on Tuesday, June 30, 2020
Indianz.Com Live with Kevin Abourezk: Bryan Brewer on #Coronavirus Checkpoints, Donald Trump and Paha Sapa (Black Hills)

'Left out and left behind': Trump administration faces questions about COVID-19 in Indian Country

The Trump administration's COVID-19 response efforts in Indian Country are back in the spotlight again. Key lawmakers are hearing from two agencies that have been forced to toe the line by a president who continues to send mixed and conflicting messages about a disease that has affected the first Americans at disproportionate rates.

The Indian Health Service has repeatedly touted its coronavirus initiatives in more than a dozen conference calls with tribal leaders. But the agency has faced repeated complaints about a proprietary machine that provides inconsistent COVID-19 results, a lack of contract tracing for those infected and little to no discussion about bringing antibodies testing to reservations and urban Indian communities.

Yet for all those critiques, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has largely been sidelined during the pandemic, despite being trained to handle crises. Concerned about high cost shares that have yet to be fully addressed by the White House, most tribal nations have decided to avoid working with FEMA due to the uncertainty in Washington.

“Too often under this president, Native Americans have been left out and left behind,” Rion Ramirez, a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians who chairs the Native American Caucus Chair for the Democratic National Community, said on Tuesday. “The Native American population is particularly vulnerable to the challenges presented by this pandemic and requires a concerted response effort, a standard this administration has not come even close to meeting."

"My community deserves better from our leaders – our lives quite literally depend on it,” added Ramirez

A hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs will help shed some light on the Trump administration's COVID-19 response and mitigation efforts. IHS Director Michael Weahkee, who was barely confirmed to his position in April following a delay that lawmakers traced to a slow-moving White House, and Robert J. Fenton, Jr., a regional administrator for FEMA, are among those scheduled to testify on Wednesday afternoon.

The committee often works in a non-partisan fashion when addressing tribal needs. Just last week, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the legislative panel introduced a major Indian housing bill, a package that would help alleviate the substandard conditions in Indian Country that have contributed to the spread of COVID-19.

"The committee’s leadership on this issue comes at a welcome time as the bill would provide certainty for tribal housing programs just as they are stretched thin from responding to COVID-19 in tribal communities," Gary Cooper, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who chairs the National American Indian Housing Council, said of S.4090, which would reauthorize Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act following the expiration of NAHASDA seven years ago.

"This bill would help native communities by including vital improvements to NAHASDA, 10-year authorizations for tribal housing programs, and by providing tribes greater eligibility to other federal housing programs," added Cooper, who leads housing programs for one of the two largest tribal governments in the United States.

Yet Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the committee chairman, has largely been quiet about coronavirus initiatives in Indian Country. In early May, he promoted the Trump administration's delayed release of initial payments from the $8 billion COVID-19 relief fund by publicizing the dollar awards for tribes in North Dakota, most of whose leaders weren't aware of his press release until asked about it. Another Republican from the panel did the same for the 39 Indian nations in Oklahoma, which left some tribal officials wondering why they weren't informed in advance.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the committee, has been at the other end of the spectrum. He's repeatedly accused the Trump administration of shirking its trust and treaty obligations to tribes and their citizens.

“In my home state of New Mexico, and across the country, tribal communities have been on the front lines fighting this pandemic, all while bearing the weight of historic funding gaps for health care, infrastructure, and economic resources," Udall said at the committee's first hearing of the COVID-19 era last month.

"So it is a dereliction of duty – it is unconscionable – how long it took this administration to allocate the $8 billion dollars in relief funding set aside for tribal governments," Udall said of a pot of money whose handling by the Trump team has been characterized by repeated debacles and litigation.

Throughout it all, President Donald Trump has maintained a different tone despite saying he knew COVID-19 was a pandemic "long before" anyone else in the world. But it's his White House that been the source of confusion and scrambling among agencies like the IHS and FEMA.

On April 2, for example, Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, was the first to announce that the IHS was going to receive rapid test kits. However, she did not offer any details about the effort beyond promising that the agency was a priority for the administration.

Indianz.Com immediately contacted IHS after the briefing concluded and engaged in a follow-up when it looked like those details weren't forthcoming. Yet it still took the agency five days to confirm that what Birx, who has since been named as a defendant by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in a lawsuit over coronavirus checkpoints in South Dakota, was actually correct.

"We will not apologize for being an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death," Chairman Harold Frazier said of his tribe's efforts to protect his community from inadequate COVID_19 responses at the local, state and federal levels.

FEMA has similarly been left directionless by the White House's disjointed COVID-19 initiatives. A late-night email to state governors on May 18 boasted of bringing "flexibility" to their governments by allowing them to use allocations from the $150 billion coronavirus relief fund to pay for their emergency and disaster cost shares. The split is usually 75 percent federal, 25 percent local.

The White House, however, said nothing about tribal governments at the time. And FEMA knew nothing about the policy action, a senior official told Indianz.Com the following day, leaving the agency scrambling to figure out what it all meant.

Three days after the email declaration, a senior White House official got on an Indian Country conference call and said the announcement also applied to tribal nations, according to participants. Yet nothing was said about what has really been asked of President Trump -- to lower or even completely eliminate the FEMA cost shares in order to alleviate the burden of seeking a disaster declaration in connection with COVID-19.

"Let me just say that we are working hard with FEMA region nine, also with FEMA up in Washington, D.C., to try to get to a 90-10 [split] meaning we only pay ten percent of that cost," President Jonathan Nez of the Navajo Nation said on a COVID-19 virtual town hall from the largest reservation in the United States.

"And maybe we even get the assistance of the White House to cover the total cost," Nez added in a hopeful note.

Navajo Nation Office of President and Vice President: COVID-19 Town Hall - May 19, 2020

Three months later, the Navajo Nation's request has yet to be answered by Trump, leaving the Seminole Tribe as the only government in Indian Country with an approved disaster declaration from the president. A Pueblo leader who has been working with multiple tribes in New Mexico told Indianz.Com that the uncertainty has stopped them from even considering seeking assistance from FEMA due to lack of clarity about high cost shares.

And it took another month for the Department of the Treasury to update its guidance on the cost share issue. On June 24, the agency finally confirmed that tribal, state, local and territorial government could use their shares of the $150 billion coronavirus relief fund to reimburse FEMA. In other words, tribes can send money they got from the U.S. back to the U.S. for a pandemic whose handling at the very top has been the source of repeated woes.

Robert J. Fenton, who will be testifying at the Senate committee hearing, is the FEMA administrator for region nine. The area includes hundreds of tribes in Arizona, California and Nevada.

Health care workers conduct COVID-19 testing on the Arizona portion of the Navajo Nation in May 2020. Photo: Tech. Sgt. Michael Matkin / U.S. Air National Guard

The hearing is scheduled to start at 2:30pm Eastern on Wednesday. The full witmess list follows:

The Honorable RADM Michael D. Weahkee
Director, Indian Health Service
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Rockville, MD

Mr. Robert J. Fenton, Jr.
Regional Administrator, Region 9, Federal Emergency Management Agency
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Washington, DC

Mr. Scott J. Davis
Executive Director, North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission
Office of the Governor, State of North Dakota, Bismark, ND

Ms. Lisa Elgin
National Indian Health Board, Washington, DC

With social distancing guidelines in place at the U.S. Capitol, only Weahkee from IHS, Fenton from FEMA, and Davis from the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission are scheduled to appear in person. Elgin, a citizen of the Manchester-Point Arena Band of Pomo Indian will be representing the National Indian Health Board is to deliver testimony via video.

For similar reasons, only a limited number of committee members are attending in person. Some will be participating via video as well.

The general public is not allowed to attending the hearing either. Besides approved witnesses and staff, only two seats are reserved in Room 562 of the Senate Dirksen Office Building are for members of the media who have gone through the traditional credentialing process on Capitol Hill.

In addition to looking at the Trump administration's COVID-19 efforts at the hearing, the committee will examine S.3650, the Coverage for Urban Indian Health Providers Act. The bipartisan bill brings parity to urban Indian health provides by ensuring they can enjoy malpractice liability protection that others already do.

"This disease, like the federal obligation to Native people, does not stop at the borders of a reservation," Francys Crevier, the executive director of the National Council of Urban Indian Health, said at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on June 11.

"This pandemic has exacerbated the long-standing behavioral health disparities due to decades of historical trauma and will have lasting impacts for years to come," said Crevier, a citizen of the Algonquin First Nation, based in Canada.

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