Native News Pick of the Month: The First Native American Cabinet Secretary

A message to our readers: As we continue to share critical news and information about Indian Country, we are excited to share our new ‘Native News Pick of the Month’ column. Each month, our executive leadership team will select one national news story and offer commentary on the topic.

This month, PWNA President and CEO Joshua Arce offers his thoughts on our January ‘Native News Pick of the Month’: In Indian Country, tears, hope and defiance over nomination of first Native Cabinet secretary via The Washington Post.


Representative Deb Haaland’s appointment as Secretary of the Interior is nothing short of a monumental accomplishment for her, Native peoples, and the U.S. as the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary to the President.

The Department of the Interior’s role is to sustain America’s lands, water, wildlife and energy resources; advocate for island communities; and honor U.S. responsibilities to tribal nations. Bureaus such as Land Management, Ocean Energy Management, National Park Service, Indian Education and Indian Affairs all fall under this department, so you can quickly see the vast responsibilities and high expectations of Haaland. Having worked for the Bureau of Indian Education for nearly 12 years, I can attest to the myriad of challenges a federally employed Native American might face, as well as the bureaucratic red tape that can slow the progress of any project.

That said, Indian Country needed a win and Haaland’s new role represents a monumental shift. She will be met with great fanfare, hooping, honor songs and tears of triumph and vindication when she travels throughout Indian Country. One of PWNA’s Board members, Nikki Pitre (Coeur d’Alene), put it best, “To have my daughter see that this is normal, to have a Native woman at the highest level of the U.S. government, is so important.”

I do hope that tribes, pueblos and Alaska Native corporations are patient and show Haaland grace as she becomes entrenched in the magnitude of projects already underway. Her success within Indian Country will depend on who she assigns to work on Native issues – those who are capable, tactful and energized. It will take time to shift the narrative among leaders who view Native peoples as a problem instead of a solution. Haaland is charting a path for the Interior, and much like driving a vast ocean liner, sharp turns and quick shifts in policy will be nearly impossible – but a course correction is achievable. Policies can be changed, and hope can be restored.

Haaland previously said the Trump administration “essentially gutted everything that would help Indian Country to move forward, and I think there’s a lot of repair to be done.”  She cannot unilaterally right those wrongs, but she can find supporters who continue to advocate for policy change and funding. Moreover, we should not forget that Indian Country is not the sole focus of her new role.

Haaland said, “I’ll be fierce for all of us,” and I welcome that trait in advocacy. Perhaps the largest obstacles for Haaland are in the courts, where she’ll face countless federal and circuit judges and a mostly unchallenged, conservative Supreme Court. This may thwart or delay legal remedies to the tribes and what might be most challenging is seeing her name attached to every new lawsuit against the Interior: Everybody vs. Haaland.

Truthfully, this is the embodiment of being ‘Something Else’ in America today – it comes with the territory and no Secretary of the Interior is spared. While Haaland cannot ‘reset’ the troubled relationship between the federal government and Native Americans, her appointment will mark a turning point in helping to fuel future success for every Indigenous person.

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Celebrating the Native Voice in the 2020 Elections

The 2020 elections were one for the history books, with more than two-thirds of registered voters in the U.S. coming out to make their voices heard. For as long as these elections have been held, the Native vote and representation in the political sphere has been minimal. However, the 2020 election was a different story, with many wins for Indian Country.

Native American voter turnout made a significant impact in several states. For example, in Arizona over 60,000 Native votes were counted from just two of the 21 tribes in the state. It is also possible that the high turnout of Native voters swung the state of Wisconsin too. All this goes to show that our Native voices do count.

The 2020 elections were also marked with 14 Native American candidates running for seats at the national level. Two were newly elected to the House of Representatives – Rep. Kai Kahele (Hawaiian, Dem.) and Rep. Yvette Herrell (Cherokee, Rep.). Four Native incumbents kept their seats – Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo),  Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk), Tom Cole (Chickasaw) and Markwayne Mullin (Cherokee), bringing the total Native representation to six members at the national level. Numerous Native candidates also won elections at the state and local levels.

President-Elect Joe Biden, whose inauguration is tomorrow (Jan. 20), has since appointed Congresswoman Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior – the first Native cabinet secretary with power to create change. About her new responsibility for the country’s land and natural resources, Haaland said, “I’ll be fierce for all of us, for our planet and all of our protected land.”

Haaland also acknowledged, “This moment is profound when we consider the fact that a former secretary of the interior [Alexander H.H. Stuart of the 1850s Fillmore administration] once proclaimed it his goal to, quote, ‘civilize or exterminate’ us.”

From within our tribal communities, in the face of disparities, broken treaties and systemic oppression, it can be hard to feel like Native votes and voices matter. Yet, when we come together to make our voices heard and needs known, we see more power to create change than we ever imagined. While Native Americans are often a forgotten minority, we came out in numbers in 2020 that made a difference. Let’s make 2021 historic too.

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Pueblo of Acoma: Lessons Learned about Reservation Healthcare in a Post-COVID-19 World

In the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we all too often hear of the devastation faced by small, rural communities. Recently though, we heard from the Pueblo of Acoma about their successful response to COVID-19. This summary of lessons learned, shared by Tonya Ortiz-Louis, executive director of the Pueblo of Acoma (POA) Health and Human Services, may be helpful to other tribes:  

On Dec. 31, 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported an abnormal viral pneumonia in Wuhan, China that was later found to be a novel coronavirus labeled COVID-19. Less than two months later, on Feb. 26, 2020, the first U.S. case was confirmed. These events soon snowballed, with 7.1 million U.S. cases and 204,328 deaths by Sept. 28, 2020. Researchers have found that only 6% of those deaths were a result of COVID-19 alone – the remaining 94% of individuals had preexisting conditions.

On average, rural populations are older, poorer and suffer from higher rates of chronic illness than their urban peers. Since 80% of older Americans have at least one chronic disease and 77% have at least two or more chronic illnesses, rural populations are at a significantly higher risk of mortality from COVID-19 than urban populations.

The Pueblo of Acoma (Acoma) in New Mexico’s Cibola County is home to 2,784 citizens, with 18% over the age of 50, and 20% of senior citizens living below the poverty line. Fortunately, the tribe’s response efforts have helped to significantly slow the spread – even when compared to the rate of cases in the surrounding county.

Acoma took early measures to deter outside citizens from visiting, enacted universal testing across their population to isolate potential infections and hotspots, and issued orders for social distancing and facial coverings to inhibit the spread. The community cooperated.

POA Health and Human Services also adopted novel healthcare strategies, such as telehealth clinics to limit travel while expanding healthcare access for citizens. By partnering the clinics with a firm that identifies early cases of COVID, treatment by clinicians, hospital staff and primary care physicians could protect the most vulnerable before spread begins. Medical data was shared through mobile and wearable devices for trend analysis through HIPPA-compliant clouds.

This allowed citizens to stay at home, reduced the burden on healthcare providers and lowered costs for patients, providers, local government and Medicare/Medicaid reimbursements.

The U.S. had 2,103 cases per 100,000 people by Sept. 28, 2020 and Cibola County saw about 1,544 cases per 100,000 people. Meanwhile, Acoma had only 1,364 cases per 100,000 – 12% less than the surrounding county.

Acoma ultimately learned it is critical to stay ahead of the curve with telehealth and medical technologies and be proactive in protecting those most vulnerable. The community has established a dedicated, preventative care clinic focused on the vulnerable population – patients with multiple chronic conditions – to proactively monitor and track health changes. They also leveraged the federally funded Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to sustain the clinic even after the CARES funding was exhausted. 

While Acoma was unable to escape the pandemic unscathed, their innovative and proactive approach combatted their rural demographics and lack of healthcare access. If you would like to learn more about what’s working for Acoma Pueblo, feel free to contact Tonya by email at:

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PWNA Will Distribute Food Boxes to Native Elders Through Support from the Mannette Bock Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation

In many cultures, Elders are looked to as keepers of wisdom and tradition. This is especially true in First Nation communities, where Elders are regarded with high esteem as teachers and role models for future generations. To help support Native Elders and their communities, PWNA partners with senior centers, food banks and other agencies to provide year-round, immediate relief and establish long-term solutions to challenging issues such as food insecurity.

With the rise of COVID-19 and its devastating effects on tribal communities, PWNA is working with its reservation partners to provide as much relief as possible – including support such as emergency food, water and PPE for Native Elders, who are at a higher risk of infection.

PWNA recently received a grant from the Mannette Bock Fund of the Hawai’i Community Foundation (HCF), a steward of more than 950 funds created by donors who desire to transform lives and improve communities. We were selected to receive this special ‘field of interest’ funding to assist impoverished Native American Elders living in under-resourced tribal communities.

In our 30-year history, PWNA has supported Native nutrition for 2 million Native Elders, children and families, through deliveries of food, drinking water, fresh produce and holiday meals in tribal communities that are food deserts. We’ve also supported community-based training on gardening and healthy meal preparation that uplifts reliance on locally available and traditional foods.

The contribution by HCF will enable us to distribute more than 3,500 emergency food boxes to Native Elders across the Southwest and Northern Plains throughout this year. Each box will contain a week’s supply of high-need, nonperishable foods, hygiene and personal care supplies, and other essentials. These emergency food boxes will allow Elders to stay safe at home, which greatly lowers their risk of contracting COVID-19.

Home delivery and distribution of these boxes is made possible thanks to our reservation partners and their volunteers. These partnerships are central to continuing our dedicated efforts to improve the lives of Native Americans. If you’re interested in joining our mission to enrich the lives of Native peoples living on under-resourced reservations, learn more about our programs and donate today.

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This Year, Resolve to Be More #NativeAware

Last year reminded us to take a step back, express gratitude for what we have and show empathy for those whose struggles are greater than ours. COVID-19 brought to light many difficult truths about the disparities within America’s diverse communities, including for our Native American population. Now, many more people are paying attention to these struggles for the first time and want to know what they can do to help.

As we embark on 2021 together, we want to encourage you to add one resolution to your list: Be more #NativeAware.

Did you know Native Americans historically have been undercounted in the census? Or that there are multiple voting barriers for Native Americans that largely stem from living in remote, rural areas? Last year, Native communities came together to ensure their voices were heard so that they might have a chance to address the most critical issues facing their communities. For example:  

  • 23% of Native families experience low food security, meaning they have inconsistent access to enough food to lead a healthy, active life.
  • Native Americans endure a legacy of healthcare disparities, fueling high rates of diabetes, cancer, tuberculosis and infant mortality.
  • Only 13% of Native students hold a college degree, roughly half the rate of Caucasian Americans.
  • Up to 61% of Native children live in poverty or low-income households, and 29% of employed Native Americans live below poverty level.
  • Suicide rates for Native Americans between the ages of 15-24 are three times the national average — and the second leading cause of death for their age group.
  • 90,000 Native Americans are homeless, and 40% live in unsafe or substandard housing.

The fight against COVID-19 is not yet over and we want to continue to support our reservation partners while helping to bring attention to the issues that matter most so that others can help end the cycle of poverty in Indian Country.

So, how can you be more #NativeAware in 2021?

  • Check out our YouTube channel to learn more about how PWNA helps Native communities.
  • Read up on food insecurity, animal welfare, and the education barriers unique to Native American students.
  • Purchase a Native Aware t-shirt to support PWNA’s ongoing work with the tribes.
  • Tune into our “Realities Video Series with Wes Studi” and share what you learn. Be sure to include #NativeAware in your post.
  • Link your Amazon Smile account to Partnership With Native Americans so that a portion of every item you purchase on Amazon helps support our mission.
  • Visit our Native Aware site to learn more about the realities Native Americans are struggling with and how you can help. And share the page!
  • Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and use #NativeAware and the URL to help spread the word!
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2020 Year in Review

As we prepare for 2021, we want to take a moment to reflect on the past year here at Partnership with Native Americans (PWNA). 2020 brought a global health pandemic that led to more people taking a closer look at the longstanding social injustices that affect Native American communities. Thankfully,  through the continued support of our generous donors, we were able to assist some of the most remote, impoverished reservation communities in the country when they needed it most.

We also celebrated a milestone anniversary – 30 years of service – for impacting lives through immediate and long-term relief from critical barriers in food, education, animal welfare and emergency relief across Indian Country. We’re grateful that we’ll be able to continue working with our partners in the coming year.

Once again, thank you to the donors who’ve allowed us to continue carrying out our mission to champion hope and brighter futures for Native Americans.

With that, we’re sharing a glimpse of your top ten favorite blog posts from 2020:

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Merry Christmas and Thank You!

Season’s greetings! Each year, we take time to reflect on the impact of our program partners and donors on Native communities and assess the challenges we have overcome together in that time – and to put it mildly, 2020 was unprecedented.

The entire country was confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic nosedive and the social movement of a generation – none of which deterred us from carrying out our mission. To the contrary, our staff stayed safe and dug deeper, emotionally and mentally, to ensure we continued providing essential services to the most geographically isolated and impoverished communities in the U.S.

I started as the newly minted president & CEO of PWNA in January. In February, we held the First Lakota Food Summit in Rapid City, SD –  an overwhelming success for our partners and participants. As I finished visiting our offices in the Northern Plains and Southwest, we began to hear about coronavirus – and when Native communities began canceling spring ceremonies, and the NCAA canceled the March Madness college basketball tournament, we knew it was serious.

As many watched from their homes during lockdowns from March through June and longer (some Native communities are still in lockdown today), PWNA was able to adapt and continue operations safely and effectively. We transitioned many of our training services to an online platform, introduced a new portal and Instagram channel aimed at creating awareness of reservation realities, celebrated a milestone 30-year anniversary as a Native nonprofit, and hired a new vice president of fundraising to ensure we can continue to carry out our mission.

Sadly, the adverse impacts of COVID-19 to tribal communities were countless and only magnified the social inequities we work to address even in ‘normal’ times. Though, on a hopeful note, we saw the best of humanity as those who could stepped up to make a difference.

National news outlets, such as Forbes, NBC, ABC, PBS, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today and more helped share the stories and images of what was happening – and helped raise a new awareness of life on the reservations. We also owe a special thanks to legendary actor Wes Studi for helping us get the word out. Our entire staff was proud to see PWNA continuously highlighted as a top nonprofit serving Indian Country.

The outpouring of donations has been heartfelt and uplifting, helping to answer the call for COVID-19 relief for the tribes. In short:

  • Thousands of individuals made donations to PWNA for the first time – including Kliff Kingsbury, head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.
  • Funders, such as Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, Newman’s Own Foundation and LDS Charities, generously renewed grant funding.
  • New funders, including Boeing Corporation, Sergey Brin Family Foundation, Catena Foundation, South Dakota Community Foundation, Arizona Community Foundation, Synchrony Bank and the Verizon Foundation, prioritized Native giving.
  • And just as our warehouse inventory was running low, new in-kind donors, such as Baby2Baby, Convoy of Hope, Global PPE, Kate Farms and Boomer Naturals stepped up with critical supplies.

We are not out of the woods yet. Continued advocacy, awareness and social justice will be critical factors in the recovery of our tribal communities, and it will take several years. So, as we approach the new year, we’d like to remind you that nonprofits rely heavily on end-of-year giving. If you’re thinking of donating, we hope you’ll contribute to PWNA and postmark it before midnight on Dec. 31 for a tax deduction.  

From the entire PWNA family, we would like to wish you all a happy, healthy and joyous holiday season, in a safely scaled back version of your celebration with your loved ones.

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Recently in Native News

In the spirit of the season of giving, Native American communities are coming together to support one another – financially, physically and emotionally. From helping small businesses impacted by COVID-19 to advocating for social justice, several notable headlines from December showcase the resilience of Native communities. Check out our Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to stay up to date with the latest Native news headlines.

Navajo artist Emma Robbins is bringing tap water and solar power to hundreds of homes that never had it before via Insider

  • “If young Emma Robbins ever got thirsty while visiting her grandparents, she drank soda from a can — the syrupy sweet kind that was off-limits back home at her parents’ house, where water flowed freely from the faucet.”

More than 5,000 Navajo Nation businesses receive virus financial aid via KTAR

  • “An economic relief program for Navajo entrepreneurs, businesses and artisans has awarded coronavirus relief aid to more than 4,000 individuals, according to a press release Tuesday. The Navajo Nation Business and Artisans Economic Relief Grant distributed approximately $29 million in relief funds to applicants facing financial hardships from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.”

Native Americans are tired of being lumped in as ‘something else’ in polls, other surveys  via Chicago Sun Times

  • “On election night, Jodi Owings and her family watched the results reported live on television in their Oklahoma home. She noticed a CNN graphic that displayed returns by race as white, Latino, Black, ‘something else’ and Asian.”

Doctor on what it’s like to fight the Coronavirus on the Navajo Nation via NPR

  • “NPR’s Ari Shapiro speaks with Dr. Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer of the Indian Health Service’s Navajo Area, about the challenges of fighting the coronavirus on the Navajo Nation.”

Last month, Native students at Princeton embraced activism. Now, they’re looking ahead via The Princetonian

  • “Each November, Native American students at Princeton raise a tipi outside of Prospect House to celebrate Native American Heritage Month. This year, amid the pandemic and a reckoning with injustices on and off campus, the student group Natives at Princeton (NAP) designated November 2020 as Native American Activism Month.”
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Early History of Christmas in Native American Communities

The origins of Christmas may stem from several events based on different religious and cultural beliefs, such as the Celebration of Yule, the integration of St. Nicholas, the birth of Jesus Christ, or the recognition of Winter Solstice. When European settlers came to the Americas and discovered the existence of Indigenous peoples who had never heard of these things, they made it their mission to introduce these concepts as a pathway to build trust, integrate and subvert the traditional ways of Native Americans.

Today, Christmas is celebrated in many diverse ways and is considered one of the most celebrated holidays throughout the world. So, how did the early Native Americans celebrate Christmas?

It’s been said that winter is the season of stories. In the past, winters restricted the amount of movement tribes could make, so they would gather resources and do the best they could to hold out through the season. During this time, celebrations of the Winter Solstice took place as well, and more often than not families and friends would gather around a fire and tell origin stories, tales of spirits, and other anecdotes.

After the introduction of Christmas,  tribes in the east, west, north and south developed unique ways to celebrate the holiday. One of the earliest recorded instances of tribal participation in Christmas happened in the 1600’s when a Jesuit priest helped the Huron people write their first Christmas carol. Singing has always been a large part of Indigenous cultures, and even in this new tradition, they integrated old customs.

Many tribes also saw Christmas day as part of the story of Jesus and a prophecy being fulfilled. Today, you will find many examples of traditional ways and Christianity joined in different denominations of beliefs. The communal nature of tribes is still very important in many celebrations, reminding people to celebrate and take care of one another with kindness and compassion.

Regardless of the origins of Christianity in Native culture, and many of the intentions when it comes to colonizing the tribes, we can still see the value of the holiday. Christmas brings an opportunity to reflect on shared values of gratitude, compassion, charity and joy.

Today, the holiday is celebrated through singing, dancing, sharing, eating and giving. The ways our ancestors celebrated Christmas and how we continue to celebrate today shows that our culture can adapt and has the room to celebrate and be accepting of new traditions, stories and legends, no matter who held them.

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Give the Gift of Water this Giving Tuesday

Giving Tuesday is an opportunity to join in on the global generosity movement to support urgent causes. One of the most critical requests for communities in Indian Country is water. Many of us don’t think twice when we turn on a faucet to wash our hands or pour ourselves a glass of drinking water.

Unfortunately, clean water access is an ongoing crisis in many remote reservation communities. Rising temperatures and declining rainfall over the past century have depleted the groundwater that was once the principal source of drinking water for many Native Americans. Today, tribes face constant legal battles over water access and water rights on Native lands. They also lack infrastructure and funding for necessary repairs and improvements in plumbing.

On the Navajo Nation alone, 30 percent of residents lack access to running water while 42 percent of homes do not have complete plumbing facilities. On average, Navajo households are traveling 48 miles to get drinking water and pay 71 times the amount that urban area residents pay to access clean water.

This is especially concerning when we’re fighting a global health pandemic and frequent handwashing helps deter the spread of the virus. While tribal communities are enforcing social distancing, curfews and stay-at-home orders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, many Native people are nonetheless forced to break these guidelines to haul water from other places.

Not surprisingly, emergency requests for water have escalated and PWNA is including water in nearly every delivery to the reservations. Already this year, we sent more than 40 shipments of drinking water for nearly 6,500 people. However, we need help from our generous donors to continue to serve those in need.

Today – #GivingTuesday – PWNA will receive matching donations dollar for dollar up to $100,000 to ensure we’re impacting as many lives as possible. We hope you’ll donate today and join us in giving hope and clean water to Native Elders, Children and families.

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