As of Tuesday, the Navajo Nation had the third-highest rate of COVID-19 infections in the country, with 1,873 confirmed cases and 60 confirmed deaths, third only to New York and New Jersey. Tribal officials cite “broken promises” for the disproportionately high rate of cases.
“We are United States citizens but we’re not treated like that,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez told NPR. “You can hear the frustration, the tone of my voice. We once again have been forgotten by our own government.”
Over 150 years ago, the Navajo and other tribes were forced to sign treaties with the U.S. government. In exchange for their land, tribes were supposed to receive funding for housing, infrastructure, and health care. However, for decades Tribal Nations have only received small portions of what they were promised.
Now, the Navajo Nation and ten other tribes are suing the federal government for their fair share of Coronavirus relief funds. In March, Congress passed the $2 trillion CARES Act, which included $8 billion for tribes. The coalition is suing over how the Treasury Department and Indian Health Service (IHS) is doling out CARES Act funds. The coalition is arguing that they shouldn’t have to share relief funds with for-profit, Alaska Native corporations.
As reported by Alyssa Becenti with the Navajo Times, “It was reported the Secretary of the Treasury intends to fund over 230 Alaska Native Corporations using the funds. Alaska Native Corporations are for-profit corporations organized under state law and are owned by shareholders, including non-Indian shareholders. The 12 regional Alaska Native Corporations alone have over 138,000 shareholders, employ more than 43,000 people worldwide, and generated more than $10.5 billion in revenues in 2018.”
Tribes and watchdog groups also point out that IHS money is insufficient for the size of the population it serves and the scope of health issues such as diabetes and asthma that the population faces. For comparison, recent data shows the federal government spends just $2,834 per person on health care in Indian Country, while it spends $9,404 per person on veterans’ health and $12,744 per person on Medicare.
“Native American communities are often invisible in terms of their health inequities. When you look at IHS per capita spending, it is much lower than we see for veterans medical spending or Medicare spending,” Dr. Laura Hammitt, the director of Infectious Disease Programs at the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, told NPR. “IHS is chronically underfunded.”