Indianz.Com Video: Myron Lizer | Republican National Convention #RNC2020

'A disgraceful insult': Joe Biden campaign calls out Navajo leader for Republican speech

The Joe Biden presidential campaign is taking the unusual step of calling out a tribal leader, accusing Vice President Myron Lizer of the Navajo Nation of making "misleading" claims about rival Donald Trump's record on Indian issues.

Through a surrogate, the Biden campaign on Wednesday evening responded to Lizer's prime-time video address at the Republican National Convention from the night prior. Glenmore Begaye, a Navajo veteran, called the GOP speech a "disgraceful insult" to his people and said it ignored the Trump administration's mistreatment of Indian Country, particularly during the COVID-19 epidemic.

“No speech can change the fact that Donald Trump has horribly failed the Navajo Nation and our tribal communities," Begaye, a rancher on the reservation, said in a news release from Biden's camp. "Last night’s speech was a disgraceful insult to Navajo Nation and was disconnected from the realities we face."

In the address on Tuesday evening, Lizer credited Trump for signing the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, into law. But Begaye pointed out that the Navajo Nation, along with other tribes, had to sue the president's administration in order to ensure they received the funds promised to their governments.

"We didn’t receive critical CARES Act funding until after we went to court, and many Navajo people still lost their lives and jobs," said Begaye, who served in Vietnam.

With the CARES Act, Congress imposed a 30-day deadline on the executive branch to distribute $8 billion in COVID-19 relief to tribes. But an initial payment, besides being late, was released only because Trump wanted a photo-op for a meeting with Lizer in Arizona in early May, a White House official later disclosed.

"He absolutely wanted to be there to award money to the Native American community," said Kellyanne Conway, who serves as Counselor to Trump but will be leaving the White House at the end of the month.

A second COVID-19 payment to tribes was also late. While some Republicans have attempted to blame litigation for the delays, the Trump administration -- more than once -- admitted it was having trouble coming up with a way to distribute the $8 billion.

"We engaged in litigation because it was the right thing to do," Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. of the Cherokee Nation told Indianz.Com.

The Cherokee Nation was part of a case which finally forced the Department of the Treasury to disburse the coronavirus relief fund once and for all, after the agency attempted to withhold even more money from Indian Country. Hoskin characterized the litigation -- at least eight lawsuits have been filed over Trump's handling of the CARES Act in Indian Country -- as a way for tribes to hold the U.S. accountable to its trust and treaty obligations.

"The U.S. government should have made good quicker on the funds that were owed, instead of having us argue in front of the judge of when the payments would go out," Hoskin told Indianz.Com.

The Navajo Nation is part of another CARES Act case that arose when the Trump administration decided to share the $8 billion fund with Alaska Native corporations. Tribal leaders have repeatedly pointed out that a senior official who played a role in making that determination is a former high-ranking executive at one of the for-profit entities.

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, who was named to her position by Donald Trump, has denied any wrongdoing in connection with the debacle. Incidentally, she's been in her home state of Alaska all week, opening a so-called "cold case" office for missing and murdered Native Americans in Anchorage, where her Native corporation maintains a large building of its own.

"They saved some of this money for the Alaska Native corporations," President Jonathan Nez, who addressed the Democratic National Convention last week, said during a recent COVID-19 town hall for Navajo citizens. "You know we are opposed to that."

"They put some of those monies aside just in case the litigation favors the Alaska Native corporations," Nez added.

The lawsuit is ongoing, with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals set to hear arguments on September 11. The Trump administration is saving about $543 million for the Native corporations in Alaska, money they are counting on to help their shareholders and their people address the impacts of the coronavirus, especially those in remote and hard-to-reach areas of the largest state.

“Alaska Native corporations are doing all they can to meet the desperate needs of their communities as COVID-19 continues to spread," Kim Reitmeier, the executive director of the ANCSA Regional Association, told Indianz.Com. "Providing health services and basic necessities to our people is no small feat when one considers Alaska’s challenging geography and weather conditions."

"Each day that we wait for the September 11 hearing is another day our communities go without the funds that they desperately need -- and which are rightfully theirs -- to strengthen and protect against COVID-19,” Reitmeier asserted.

Trump's handling of the pandemic has been a major focus of Biden's campaign, with Democrats devoting a significant portion of their convention last week to critiques of the president. But other than Lizer's remarks on Tuesday night, the Republicans have avoided talking too much about COVID-19, choosing instead to prioritize issues like beefing up law enforcement, placing restraints on the mainstream media and strengthening the U.S. military.

The disconnect between the rival campaigns helps explain Biden's decision to call out Lizer in such a high-profile fashion. Historically, Indian issues haven't had much of a role in presidential races but with Republican-leaning states like Arizona, Montana and South Dakota, with their large Native American populations, in play this November, every vote is up for grabs.

"We know that Donald Trump isn’t on our side, and we will be proud to support Joe Biden this fall as our next president because he will uphold the U.S.’s trust and treaty obligations -- including to provide health services to Native Americans -- and help foster tribal sovereignty and prosperity," Glenmore Begaye said on Wednesday night.

Navajo Nation Office of President and Vice President: COVID-19 Town Hall - August 25, 2020

Lizer, though, has tried to downplay the partisan nature of his relationship with Trump and the Republican Party. During a COVID-19 town hall on Tuesday, just hours before his video message was broadcast, he connected his appearance at the GOP convention to the Navajo Nation's efforts to make sure the tribe's needs are heard at the highest levels of government.

"We are the largest Indian tribe across the land, North America you know," Lizer said, "and we should take those opportunities to chime in, to stand to be counted to you know, advocate for our people."

"We have a great impact, we have a great voice, a loud voice and unified ... unified, the Navajo Nation could do wonders," Lizer said.

Thumbnail photo of Navajo Code Talker Memorial in Window Rock, Arizona, the capital of the Navajo Nation, by Ron Cogswell

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