As tribal infections rise, Arizona's Capitol Hill delegation wants to speed up federal aid
Arizona's entire congressional delegation has urged the Trump administration to work directly with the state's Native Americans, citing an urgent and worsening health and economic crisis for the tribes.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., is asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency to waive its share of costs for services on the Navajo Nation. Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., asked President Donald Trump in a letter Wednesday to give tribes special flexibility in using coronavirus relief funds.
And all nine of Arizona's House members made a similar request in a letter Friday to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. That letter described a "uniquely catastrophic" economic problem facing Native Americans.
The efforts reflect a growing sense that the coronavirus is ravaging Indian communities and that the government has taken weeks to distribute the first installment of aid Congress has already approved. Seven people had died in the Navajo Nation as of Tuesday, Sinema noted.
Now the government is trying to roll out another $8 billion in tribal relief funds from the third round of aid.
"The Navajo Nation and Tribal communities across Arizona are battling outbreaks of the coronavirus and need every available resource," Sinema said in a written statement to The Arizona Republic. "We're working to connect the Navajo Nation to testing and (personal protection equipment), pushing the federal government to allow Tribes to apply directly for emergency funding, and are urging the federal government to consult directly with Tribes to ensure tribal communities have the resources they need to fight coronavirus."
McSally noted the government has "specific trust and treaty responsibilities to American Indians" and urged a respect for tribal sovereignty in her letter.
The resources problem is especially serious in Arizona because the state has 22 tribes and a substantial Native American population, and because areas such as Navajo and Coconino counties have seen alarming rates of infection.
Those two counties have more than 270 virus cases so far. Navajo County's infection rate on a per capita basis is higher than in any county in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and California, according to data tracked by the New York Times.
Rep. Tom O'Halleran, D-Ariz., whose district includes many of the state's tribal areas, said the government needs to be more nimble because the virus can overwhelm tribal resources, which have plummeted in the economic shutdown.
"This virus is consuming money at a high rate, and these tribes just don't have it," he said. "Their ability to to address an emergency like this just isn't there."
"There's recognition (by the administration) now, but the ... long term structure of relationships with tribal lands is going to be one of the issues that has to be overcome fast," O'Halleran said.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who is chairman of the House Indigenous Peoples of the U.S. subcommittee, said he plans to reassess the funding situation to see if the administration is moving more rapidly in supplying aid to a part of the population especially vulnerable to the virus.
"The COVID-19 pandemic is having a uniquely catastrophic economic impact on tribal nations in that they have had to close their enterprises, which means the very revenues they rely on for services to their citizens evaporated overnight," the letter from the state's House members said. "Additionally, as some of largest employers in their regions, the closure of tribal governments and enterprises has a dramatic impact on local workers and economies."
Congress has approved billions in aid to tribal areas, but that has been slow in reaching them, Gallego and O'Halleran said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was the primary source of distributing the first round of aid to the tribes, but that agency didn't have established funding relationships with the tribes in many cases, the members said.
Gallego asked weeks ago that CDC work with the Indian Health Service as part of an effort to expedite relief. His office was told the CDC took 15 days just to send out applications for aid to the tribes.
The CDC did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.
The Navajo Nation is expected to be among the first tribes in the U.S. to receive first-round aid from the CDC, but the Navajo still had not received any of those funds as of Thursday.
Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a written statement she supported the request for expedited help and would revisit the subject if it is needed.
"As the coronavirus crisis evolves and situations on the ground change, we will know if more assistance is needed," she said. "I will continue to work with tribal leaders and my fellow Arizona colleagues to help ensure these communities receive the resources they need during these difficult times."
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, echoed the need for flexibility with the tribes.
"Arizona’s tribes are unique, and the distribution of federal funds cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach," he said in a statement. "It’s critical that the federal government adequately consult with tribal leadership and rapidly work to release the funds designated for tribes in the CARES Act to ensure tribal communities receive fair distribution and have the resources they need to protect their communities."