WASHINGTON, D.C. [07/01/20]—Today, U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.) took to the Senate floor to raise the disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having on Native American communities in the United States, and to call on the Trump Administration and Congress to uphold its trust and treaty responsibilities by addressing the urgent needs of Tribes across the country.

In her speech, Sen. Smith called for Congress to provide support to Tribal governments so they can respond to COVID-19 and provide essential services for Tribal members, and also highlighted the need to fully fund the Indian Health Service and housing programs.

You can watch video of Sen. Smith’s remarks here.

In early spring, Tribal governments in Minnesota made the difficult, voluntary decision to close Tribal enterprises to protect public health. As a result, they lost significant government revenue and experienced massive unemployment, not only for their members but also for surrounding communities,” said Sen. Smith in her remarks from the Senate floor. “This lost revenue meant Tribal governments were forced to scale back essential services like nutrition assistance for elders, public safety, and education programs.

“In the CARES Act, Congress agreed to $8 billion in emergency relief to help Tribes respond to COVID. Even after congressional action, Tribal governments had to continue fighting to get their fair share. The Trump administration argued that some of this relief money should go to for-profit Alaska Native corporations. It took the Treasury Department forty days to distribute the first sixty percent of the funds to Tribes.  And not until two weeks ago, almost three months after the passage of the CARES Act, did Tribal governments receive the rest. And to be clear, these funds cannot be used to replace their lost revenue.

“Let’s take this extraordinary moment, a moment when our country is called to respond to a terrible pandemic and to reckon with systemic inequity that has hurt Native people, and even sought to erase them, and turn it to good. We have an opportunity to not only to address the public health and economic crisis of COVID, but also live up to our obligation to Tribes by providing them with tools to build resiliency in their communities.”

You can watch video of Sen. Smith’s remarks here and her remarks as prepared for delivery below:

Floor Speech on Impacts of COVID-19 on Indian Country
Senator Tina Smith
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

M. President:

I rise today with my colleague the Senator from New Mexico Tom Udall to call for urgent action by Congress to respond to the needs of Tribal Nations and urban Indigenous communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.                                                            

We have not done enough.  We have not lived up to our shared treaty and trust obligations.  And in this moment, we are called to respond to the historic injustice and systems of oppression and institutional violence that are harming communities of color and Indigenous people.

Over the last month people in Minnesota and across the country have focused our attention on the deep systemic inequities that Black, Brown and Indigenous people face.

This injustice is not new, it is as old as the colonization of this country. But colleagues, this is a unique moment.

This public health crisis presents us with an opportunity to show that we are serious about repairing the damage done by our broken promises to sovereign Tribal Nations and urban Indigenous communities.

Some have said that COVID-19 is the great equalizer.  But we know that COVID hits hardest those without a safe place to call home.  Those struggling with low wages, poverty, and lack of health care.  And Black, Brown and Indigenous people living with the trauma of having their identity, their very humanity called into question, even before the virus spread.

The impact of COVID on Native communities has been devastating.

Native people have been hospitalized for COVID at five times the rate of white people.

In mid-May, the Navajo Nation reached a higher per-capita infection rate than any other hotspot in the country.

Why is COVID hitting Tribal Nations so hard?

Despite repeated calls from Tribal leaders and urban Indigenous communities, over the past few decades the federal government has stood by and allowed the budget of the Indian Health Service to dwindle, neglected Indian housing programs, and ignored growing health inequities.

The federal institutions dedicated to serve Indian Country are not broken.  These institutions were never adequate to live up to our trust and treaty responsibilities. They represent a broken promise.

The federal government’s failure has life and death consequences for Native people, for their health and wellbeing. For their opportunity to provide for their families. 

Think of this striking statistic: unemployment in the Indigenous community in the Twin Cities is a terrible forty seven percent. Higher than any other race or ethnic group in the area.

Within Tribal Nations, the economic impact of the coronavirus is equally devastating.

In early spring, Tribal governments in Minnesota made the difficult, voluntary decision to close Tribal enterprises to protect public health.  As a result, they lost significant government revenue and experienced massive unemployment, not only for their members but also for surrounding communities.

This lost revenue meant Tribal governments were forced to scale back essential services like nutrition assistance for elders, public safety, and education programs.

In the CARES Act, Congress agreed to $8 billion in emergency relief to help Tribes respond to COVID. 

Even after congressional action, Tribal governments had to continue fighting to get their fair share. The Trump administration argued that some of this relief money should go to for-profit Alaska Native corporations.

It took the Treasury Department forty days to distribute the first sixty percent of the funds to Tribes.  And not until two weeks ago, almost three months after the passage of the CARES Act, did Tribal governments receive the rest.

And to be clear, these funds cannot be used to replace their lost revenue.

M. President, we have so much work to do to fulfill our commitment to Indigenous people, the simple proposition that Native families have equal access to health care, housing, and opportunity as white Americans.

When I speak to Tribal leaders in my state about this cycle of historical underinvestment, inequity, and broken promises, I share their frustration. It’s impossible not to.

Indigenous leaders in Minnesota know: a lack of housing on Tribal lands leads to overcrowding, which increases the risk of contracting COVID.  Tribes have asked over and over again for sufficient funding for NAHASDA housing programs, they should not have to ask any more.

Indigenous leaders know:  a lack of access to health care and substance use disorder treatment leads to chronic health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and asthma, which worsen COVID symptoms.  Tribes have asked over and over again for sufficient funding to address health inequities, they should not have to ask any more.

Indigenous leaders know:  a lack of access to credit prevents urban Indigenous households from building wealth like their white neighbors, who can more easily weather the storm of unemployment. Native communities have asked us over and over again to enforce fair lending laws and ensure access to credit for minority borrowers. They should not have to ask any more. 

Long before COVID, these inequities have harmed Indigenous people.  Our inaction has placed Tribal Nations in the untenable position of having to ask for what they are already owed.

So, let’s take this extraordinary moment, a moment when our country is called to respond to a terrible pandemic and to reckon with systemic inequity that has hurt Native people, and even sought to erase them, and turn it to good.

We have an opportunity to not only to address the public health and economic crisis of COVID, but also live up to our obligation to Tribes by providing them with tools to build resiliency in their communities.

First, we must provide rapid, flexible support to Tribal governments so they can respond to COVID-19 and provide essential services for Tribal members at the same time.

Second, let’s live up to our promises and fully fund the Indian Health Service and NAHASDA housing programs.  When we do this, we will address the shortage of physical and behavioral health care for youth, parents, and elders.  And, we will make it easier for families to find safe affordable places to live and build wealth through homeownership.

We can do this – it’s within our power. We can end the cycle of underinvestment and institutional violence, and this is the best moment in a generation to do this.

I am committed to lifting up the voices of the Indigenous leaders in Minnesota who have been calling for change for decades. I will follow their lead and continue to advocate for these changes, because they are long overdue.

I hope the rest of my constituents and colleagues will join me.