Most tribal gaming operations have been closed since March to ensure the public’s health and safety during the coronavirus pandemic, severely impacting tribes and laying bare two misconceptions… that “Native Americans are casino rich” and “Native Americans do not pay taxes.” In fact, the loss of revenue, wages, supply chain orders and charitable donations as a result of COVID-19 has impacted even the most prosperous gaming tribes as well as jobs and state revenues.
Contrary to popular belief, fewer than 15% of American Indian tribes operate prosperous casinos. More than 400 tribes in the U.S. are not federally recognized and cannot rely on gaming for a revenue stream. And less than half (about 38%) of the 574 tribes that are federally recognized actually operate casinos. Meanwhile, though there are about 75 highly profitable casinos, others barely break even. These smaller casinos, however, help create local jobs for tribal and non-tribal members living in rural locations.
My tribe – the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation – opened their gaming operation in the late 1990’s. And while our compact with the state of Kansas indicates there will be no direct revenue-sharing by the tribe to the state, and the state will not directly tax the tribe for its operation, the state does require our tribe to fund the entire operating budget of the State Gaming Department. Additionally, we must allocate a certain percentage of gaming profits to charity – despite not being in the best location for revenue generation within Kansas.
Unlike the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut, the Hard Rock Casino in Florida or the Table Mountain Casino in California – each of which has their own terms under a state compact – my tribe launched its casino through an outside management company and did not become a tribally owned and operated casino until 10 years later. Like many tribes, we depend on gaming revenues in order to sustain a minimum standard of living for our tribal communities – from building homes for Elders and awarding scholarships for our youth, to funding our local court system and social services.
Like many others, the Potawatomi Nation employs Native American staff (roughly a third of its workforce). The rest are non-Native employees from surrounding communities. And just like other Americans – every single employee pays taxes on their wages. Not to mention they’re putting their dollars back into the local and state economy. This aligns with a recent story in Oregon where closed casinos are hammering the tribal economies and surrounding communities.
The Indian gaming industry is facing an $18 billion loss due to the coronavirus. It will likely survive, but even as some casinos re-open, a host of issues will cascade from the economic impact of this pandemic, including loss of reserves and investments, increasing debt and re-employment hurdles. Ernie Stevens, Chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA), along with several individuals within the U.S House of Representatives, regularly advocate for fair legislation impacting tribal casinos and are now pushing for COVID-19 relief funding through the CARES Act. What the public and lawmakers most need to understand is that tribal casinos are economic drivers that benefit entire communities – not just the tribes but also their states – and they deserve to be considered in the next stimulus package.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, students have been removed from their campuses, forced to find somewhere new to live, and in some cases, are unable to return home. For many students, college is our life, and without the security of our schedules, housing and meals, we struggle on our own. Our studies are rigorous, and not everyone has the capacity to work while maintaining success in school. Nor does everyone have easy Internet access – especially Native American students returning home to a remote reservation community. About 20% of Native students on the reservations do not have computer or Internet access at home for distance learning, according to the American Indian College Fund. Students who were forced to leave campus need to figure out how to replace all the things school provided them – and quickly.
Now that our lectures have shifted to an online platform, our schedules are extremely malleable, our deadlines have softened, and our learning experience has changed for the lesser in some ways. What impact do you think it has for an engineering student to be restricted from hands-on learning? Or for a research student to not have a lab? Or a design student to not have access to necessary equipment? Our labs and hands-on work bring forth the better part of our learning.
On a personal level, I have been unable to conduct the in-depth amount of research needed for a design project that is due this semester, and it’s preventing my team from finding the information necessary for crucial design decisions. While we have found some workarounds, to say the robustness of the project will be seriously affected is putting it lightly.
When it comes to finances, many students are struggling from the impacts of COVID-19. While the government is delivering relief checks to a large portion of the U.S. tax-filing populace, many parents still claim their offspring until they are 24 years old – an age that most college students fall under. As a result, most students didn’t receive a COVID-19 relief check to help with the travel and relocation they were forced into, the leases they must still cover, or the food and other supplies they need now that they’re away from school. In addition, being forced to leave the state where you attend school can disrupt residency status and have tuition implications if the disruption lasts long enough.
Internships are another aspect of student life greatly impacted by COVID-19. Many businesses across the country are now dropping staff, not to mention internships. For many students, internships are a source of income they rely on to help pay for college – myself included.
Beyond all of this, something students share with the general population is the feeling of isolation. Recently, I’ve had a hard time waking up in the morning and I’m noticing a feeling of grogginess and fatigue, which were symptoms of a Vitamin D deficiency from not getting enough sunlight. Being in isolation doesn’t just impact our social life – it can affect our health, relationships and opportunities as well.
While I can’t speak for all college students, many of my friends are experiencing the same challenges and insecurities – and I haven’t even mentioned the implications of cancelled events such as graduations, organization inductions and cultural ceremonies. For many of us, March and April are just the tip of the iceberg.
While the coronavirus is affecting each student differently, the one commonality we all share is the impact it has on our education. I pray it lifts soon.
Americans Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest representation in the U.S. armed forces, according to the Department of Defense, but few outside of the Native and military communities are aware of their significant contributions. To put it to numbers, there are roughly 31,000 active duty Native American servicemen and women and 140,000 living Native veterans, according to a 2017 survey.
History of Native American Veterans
Native Americans play an important role in U.S. military success. During World War II, a group of Native soldiers now known as the Navajo Code Talkers used their Native language to develop a secret communication code used during the conflict – it was never deciphered by enemies and is often credited for helping to win the war. The Code Talkers are still recognized for their dedication and bravery every August 14th on National Navajo Code Talkers Day. Beyond World War II, Native Americans continued to enlist in the military and roughly 42,000 served in the Vietnam War.
The Struggle for Health Care
Despite their service and sacrifice, Native American veterans have struggled with receiving proper healthcare after returning home, especially those who rely on the Indian Health Service (IHS). And if treated at urban IHS facilities, they generally aren’t eligible for reimbursement through the Affordable Care Act.
During this critical time of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Native American veterans are in need of quality health care. Many of them fall within populations that are more at-risk of complications from COVID-19, whether due to age or underlying health conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease or respiratory illness.
Fortunately, there was recent traction on Capitol Hill toward passing a bipartisan bill that will help these urban vets who are not currently receiving aid for IHS services. The bill, Health Care Access for Urban Native Veterans Act (H.R.4135), would authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs to pay for veterans care at urban IHS centers. H.R.4135 received markups in March and is now ready to be introduced to the House of Representatives.
Support Native Veterans
In the meantime, the Native American Veterans Association provides support to Native veterans and posts important resources related to COVID-19 safety recommendations and resources. In a random survey, half of PWNA’s tribal partners reported serving veterans in their communities, including for COVID-19 relief. The National Native American Veterans Memorial is also currently accepting donations for the development of its memorial to honor Native veterans, which is set to be developed in Washington, D.C.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the country to a crawl. Lawmakers and consumers alike are rightly worried about the economic security of shuttered bars, restaurants, and retail locations. But many have largely ignored the nation’s charities.
COVID-19 has the potential to devastate non-profit organizations, which provide essential services to vulnerable populations, fund biomedical research, support education, and employ millions of Americans. Social distancing and donor uncertainty prevent these organizations from hosting crucial fundraisers and food drives, recruiting volunteers, and in some cases delivering their services to those in need.
Led by United Way and the YMCA, a group of non-profits has asked Congress for emergency funding. These funds will help maintain vital services and protect a vital pillar of our economy. As lawmakers consider the impact of the pandemic, they can’t ignore these critical organizations.
COVID-19 has disrupted the nation’s non-profits just when many citizens need them most. The American Red Cross – which provides 40 percent of the nation’s blood supply – has had to cancel 7,000 blood drives since March 1st, resulting in 200,000 lost donations. Such a severe shortage of blood puts lives at risk. Hospitals need a constant flow of donations to treat cancer patients, trauma victims, and others.
Many of the 3.3 million Americans who recently filed for unemployment will soon turn to The Salvation Army for food, shelter, and financial assistance. But COVID-19 has forced The Salvation Army to close many of its donation centers and retail stores.
Feeding America has seen a “sharp decline” in volunteers. The organization is one of many hunger relief organizations scrambling to retain staff and keep their shelves stocked in the face of a sinking economy. Seattle-based Food Lifeline has gone from 18,000 to 20 volunteers, just as it expects demand for its services to double. The organization no longer has the capacity to sort food donations and has resorted to purchasing pre-packaged boxes of food.
COVID-19 has also dealt a severe blow to America’s cancer research non-profits. The Lymphoma Research Foundation has postponed all in person programs events, including free patient and professional education programs and fundraising events, at least until this summer, to protect the patients who attend these events and who are at higher risk for severe complications from the novel coronavirus.
With hospitals canceling non-essential visits, cancer patients will rely on organizations like the Lymphoma Research Foundation to provide information about how to manage their disease. And since cancer patients are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, they’ll look to non-profit organizations like LRF for support and ways to stay healthy throughout the pandemic.
Finally, Partnership With Native Americans (PWNA) provides essential services for those living on remote reservations. Native Americans are extremely susceptible to COVID-19 due to overcrowded housing, higher rates of diabetes and respiratory illness, and limited healthcare options. Nearly 50 percent of grandparents raise their grandchildren, putting themselves at risk of contracting the virus. And tribal communities often live in food deserts. The Navajo Nation, for instance, spans three states and has only 13 grocery stores.
PWNA, one of the largest non-profits serving Indian Country, is still making critical deliveries of food, water, sanitizer, toilet paper and other essentials to hundreds of tribal communities, even those with travel restrictions and shelter in place orders. But as COVID-19 increases demand, PWNA’s warehouse supplies are running low.
By providing emergency funds to non-profit organizations, Congress could help the economy as well as vulnerable Americans. Over 1 million charitable non-profits employ more than 12 million people in the United States and contribute $1 trillion to the economy each year. Sustaining these groups through our present crisis will help lessen the economic turmoil wrought by COVID-19.
Lawmakers are right to provide economic relief to shuttered shops and restaurants. But they also need to assist the soup kitchens, social service organizations, cancer research foundations, and other groups that will support vulnerable Americans throughout the COVID-19 outbreak and beyond. Now more than ever, we need our non-profits.
About Christina Kazhe, PWNA Chairman of the Board
Christina Kazhe specializes in protecting the interests of Native American such as tribal sovereignty, legal and public policy and federal recognition. Founder of The Kazhe Law Group, she holds a Juris Doctor from Boalt School of Law at UC Berkeley and a Bachelor’s in Human Development and Native American Studies from the University of California, Davis. Christina is a member of the Navajo Nation and affiliate to the Mescalero Apache Tribe.
About Michael Werner
Michael Werner serves as Chair of the Lymphoma Research Foundation’s Board of Directors and is a lymphoma survivor. He is the Founder and CEO of Chicago-based Home Experience, LLC, a digital and services company enhancing the home ownership experience. Werner is the former President and CEO of Globe Union Group, Inc., and is a long-standing Board member of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
About the Lymphoma Research Foundation
The Lymphoma Research Foundation (LRF) is the nation’s largest non-profit organization devoted exclusively to funding innovative lymphoma research and serving the lymphoma community through a comprehensive series of education programs, outreach initiatives and patient services. To date, LRF has awarded more than $62 million in lymphoma-specific research. To learn more about LRF, visit lymphoma.org.
About Partnership With Native Americans (PWNA)
PWNA is a nonprofit championing hope for a brighter future
for Native Americans living on remote and impoverished reservations. Now in its
30th year, PWNA collaborates with reservation programs to serve
immediate needs and support long-term solutions for strong, self-sufficient
Native American communities, annually improving the lives of 250,000 tribal
citizens. Follow PWNA on Facebook or visit www.nativepartnership.org.
Communities in Indian Country are continuing to address their own unique challenges in combatting the coronavirus. While access to basics like food and health care remain the most critical focus, it’s also important to address other concerns such as animal welfare.
Many reservation communities are overpopulated with stray animals. In the Navajo Nation alone, its estimated there may be upward of 6,000 stray dogs and cats roaming the reservation. This can lead to hungry and injured animals and human health risks, including animal bites, rabies and the spread of diseases.
Reservation Animal Rescue (RAR), a program of PWNA, provides animal welfare services to support partners who rescue, rehabilitate and place injured or stray animals in foster or forever homes. Our RAR partners receive support in various ways, including:
- Grants to support low-cost spaying and neutering by veterinarians
- Food and foster care kits for local rescue groups and families fostering pets
- Incentive products to support education around proper care of animals
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), coronaviruses can cause illness in people and certain types of animals – and coronaviruses that infect animals can sometimes be spread to people. In the case of COVID-19, the first infections were linked to a live animal market overseas, but the disease is now spreading person to person. The first case of any animal testing positive for COVID-19 in the U.S. was a tiger at a New York City zoo. But the CDC notes, “We do not have evidence that companion animals, including pets, can spread COVID-19 to people or that they might be a source of infection in the United States.”
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is working to support the veterinary community during the COVID-19 crisis. AVMA agrees, “It appears that dogs and cats are not readily infected with SARS-CoV-2…” However, they suggest that “until more is known about this virus, if you are ill with COVID-19 you should restrict contact with pets and other animals, just as you would restrict your contact with other people.” AVMA also suggests having a 14-day store of pet food and medicine on hand in case of quarantine in homes or animal shelters.
Injured and stray animals of the reservations don’t know anything about COVID-19, but they are still hungry and in need of shelter. Unfortunately, the supplies we need to deliver to animal care groups across the Northern Plains and Southwest reservations are extremely limited right now. Donations to RAR are critical to ensure continued aid to everyone in the communities we serve, including our four-legged friends. Please consider making a donation to RAR today.
Motherhood can inspire us to do things outside our comfort zone and help us aspire to achieve goals we may have thought were unattainable. For Wetalu Rodriguez, a citizen of the Nez Perce tribe and past recipient of PWNA’s American Indian Education Fund (AIEF) scholarship, motherhood “propelled” her to break her family’s cycle of poverty.
“I decided to pursue my education after giving birth to my first daughter, Jaxcee. Prior to having her, I was simply existing…but motherhood propelled me to accomplish higher education as I wanted to set a great example for her and demonstrate what determination and resiliency looks like,” said Wetalu. “In the beginning, she was my biggest motivation and I had to really hold myself accountable to fulfill the goals I set out to accomplish.”
Pursuing a post-secondary education and parenting is a delicate balancing act where actions speak louder than words. For Wetalu, achieving her goals meant “late-night study sessions with open books” and “giving my undivided attention on assignments and homework.” But the task was daunting, especially for Jaxcee. “I managed to keep her spirits light by designating family time and study time. I am fortunate she observed my labor as a college student,” said Wetalu.
Wetalu is a first-generation college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and she recognizes and appreciates the value of those late nights and hard work. “My education has opened more doors for opportunities, networking and skills-building. I have engaged in conferences, training and speaking events that brought self-development and growth. Through my educational journey, I’ve gained the experience and confidence to recognize my qualifications and alleviate the fear of failure or unwillingness to try something new.”
Wetalu’s degree, along with the confidence she gained in pursuing her education, allowed her the opportunity to become financial self-sufficient. After graduating, she became an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer for the Nez Perce tribe’s Wapaayatat “Serve” project, as well as a volunteer for the Nimiipuu Community Development Fund, which helps Native individuals achieve financial independence.
“As an Indigenous woman and mother who attained a higher education, I have a story that needs to be heard to inspire the next person in line,” said Wetala. “My ability to be financially self-sufficient is more attainable” and it’s positively impacting her and her daughter’s lives. “I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to receive help from the American Indian Education Fund.”
Like most others, Wetalu is currently learning to adjust to life in a global pandemic. The stay-at-home orders and social-distancing measures implemented in her community meant having to adapt very quickly. “This unforeseen online transition has taught resilience, self-love, self-confidence and productivity in dark times,” said Wetalu. “As a VISTA volunteer, I am extremely grateful to have a cohort that allows us to work from home. This type of understanding demonstrates that as a volunteer, I matter.” While at home, Wetalu is embracing cultural preservation and quality mother-daughter time with Jaxcee.
Wetalu and Jaxcee, thank you so much for inspiring mothers and students everywhere – your story has been heard! Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers who are paving a brighter future for their children.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt the general news landscape. We’re sharing some of April’s most critical headlines around COVID-19 and its impact on Native Americans. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and stay up to date with the latest headlines all year long.
How Native Americans Are Fighting a Food Crisis via The New York Times
- “For the roughly 20,000 members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation — a vast, two million-acre expanse in southern South Dakota — social distancing is certainly feasible. Putting food on the table? Less so. Getting to food has long been a challenge for Pine Ridge residents. For a lot of people, the nearest grocery store is a two-hour drive away. Many rely on food stamps or the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, a federal initiative that provides boxes of food (historically lacking in healthy options) to low-income families. Diabetes rates run very high.”
- “There are 574 federally recognized Native American tribes across the U.S., and while the numbers vary from state to state and tribe to tribe, it is becoming clear that Native Americans are being hit harder by the coronavirus than the overall population. How much harder and why and what might be done about this are questions for our next guest. Loretta Christensen is the Navajo area chief medical officer at Indian Health Service, which serves as the federal health program for American Indians and Alaska Natives.”
- “New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) said her state is facing unique challenges posed by responding to the coronavirus pandemic in Native American communities. The governor said Sunday on CNN’s ‘State of the Union’ that as of a couple of days ago, 25 percent of New Mexico’s positive COVID-19 cases were Native American. ‘Some of these areas, particularly in Navajo nation, you’re in a situation where you’ve got folks living without access to water and electricity and this creates unique challenges,’ Lujan Grisham said. Six percent of New Mexico’s population is Native American with 23 distinct sovereign nations, she said.”
- “When my medical school asked its first-year students to move out, I had to decide where to go, and quickly. I could go to South Dakota, where one of my Chiefs had invited me to a thunder-welcoming ceremony, or Arizona, where a healing ceremony was taking place for a family member. I chose neither. A few days earlier, I had been in two of Boston’s major health care centers and had recently been with patients. Cases of COVID-19 had already popped up in the city. I couldn’t risk bringing the virus to my two Indigenous communities.”
The Chef Bringing Native American Flavors to Communities in Quarantine via Atlas Obscura
- “What’s in your kitchen pantry? If you answered quinoa, green beans, or potatoes, you have, perhaps unbeknownst to you, been eating Native American heritage. ‘They might not know they have indigenous foods in their cupboard: might be canned corn, canned beans, squash,’ says Brian Yazzie, a Twin Cities-based chef and food activist from the Navajo Nation, of his YouTube channel’s at-home viewers. But thanks to the ingenuity of indigenous farmers, who domesticated these crops over millennia, much of the world relies on Native American staples when times get lean.”
Wes Studi’s Latest Outreach Partnership via Cowboys & Indians
- “Wes Studi recently became the on-camera face of a series of important public-service announcement videos by the nonprofit Partnership With Native Americans. Since 1990, PWNA has been working with Native Americans living on remote, geographically isolated, and under-resourced reservations and supporting reservation programs to serve immediate needs for 250,000 Native Americans annually. The five-part Realities Video Series With Wes Studi includes an accurate portrayal of life on the reservation and dispels long-held myths that continue to impact Native communities today.”
The Navajo Nation – the largest reservation in the country – is greatly distressed in the fight against the global coronavirus pandemic, as reported by Time. The Navajo Nation has more than 1,300 confirmed cases on the reservation and counting. However, there are only four inpatient hospitals, all of them operated by the Indian Health Service (I.H.S.) in Chinle (Arizona) and Crownpoint, Shiprock and Gallup (New Mexico) with just 222 beds – not nearly enough to accommodate the 175,000 residents living on the reservation.
The Navajo Reservation has seven I.H.S. outpatient clinics and five part-time health stations. But some I.H.S. facilities are understaffed by as much as 45 percent. The Navajo Nation also operates four health facilities in Arizona (Fort Defiance, Winslow, Tuba City and Ganado) and one in Utah (Montezuma Creek), the largest of which has 73 beds.
Community Spread on the Navajo Nation
Several factors explain why the Navajo Nation is experiencing such a rapid spread of positive cases. Navajo families tend to house multiple generations under one roof, therefore putting everyone in the house at greater risk of contracting the virus, especially Elders. As it is, many of the Elders are more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 on account of the high prevalence of chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Further escalating the issue is the fact that roughly 40 percent of Navajo residents have no access to running water, making it difficult to follow federally recommended handwashing guidelines to limit the spread of coronavirus.
Navajo Leaders In Action
In an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 on the reservation, Navajo President Jonathan Nez issued a stay-at-home order in late March, including a nightly curfew that requires residents to stay home between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. every day. This month, Nez took further measures and issued a 57-hour weekend curfew, ordering people to stay home from Friday, April 10 at 8 p.m. until Monday, April 13 at 5 a.m. in hopes of curbing the spread over the Easter holiday weekend. Checkpoints were set up for enforcement and the mandate will be extended until the first weekend of May. Violators who do not follow the mandate could face up to 30 days in jail or a fine of $1,000, or both.
PWNA partner Alberta Begay at the Cove Chapter Senior Services Center in Arizona had to temporarily halt their congregate meals, which are typically served to Elders five days a week. Instead, they and other senior centers with good vehicles are now home-delivering meals to the Elders. Alberta shared, “some Elders were shocked to hear they had to stay at home, and we still get calls asking if they can come by the center yet.” She tells them staying at home is to ensure their safety and the safety of the other Elders. The Cove Senior Center has been a PWNA partner for 10 years.
How to Help
Although tribal leaders are taking aggressive steps to fight the spread of the virus within the Navajo community, there is still much that can be done to aid residents who have limited access to food, water and medical care. There are only 13 grocery stores on the reservation and the Navajo Nation Council is conducting food distributions but the lines are more than five miles long in a single day, according to Indianz.com.
PWNA is assisting the Navajo and other reservation communities impacted across the Southwest, as well as tribes in the Northern Pains like Pine Ridge, Standing Rock and Northern Cheyenne. Please consider donating to the PWNA COVID-19 Tribal Emergency Fund and spreading the word to friends and family about the need to assist the Navajo and other tribes during this critical time – every contribution helps in the fight against COVID-19.
While we are all seeing the impacts of COVID-19 to Indian Country as they relate to availability of food, water, health care and other necessities, I have been watching the impact from another angle too – the digital perspective. Events like this shine a light on inadequacies, inefficiencies and gaps in service. They can also be used for change and improvement.
The digital divide in Indian Country is on par with all the other areas of critical infrastructure, food insecurity and economic development that continue to leave Native communities behind. At the first Lakota Food Summit in South Dakota earlier this year, one of the speakers put up a map of reservations. They also put up a map of food deserts. Not coincidentally, these two maps nearly overlapped perfectly when they were put on top of one another. I would contend that the tribal colleges in Indian Country would also be in proximity to the areas with highest need for food, economic opportunity and education.
It is not a complete shock to me that Native communities are in this predicament with the digital divide or that the federal government has allocated significant funding to improve the situation. What is clearly lacking, however, is the knowledge, skills and ability to get it done. This is not small potatoes. It would take dozens of MOUs, MOAs, approval from municipalities and lengthy legal reviews to accomplish the task.
The Northern Tier Network Consortium is essentially a merry band of Internet “nerds” from colleges throughout the northern corridor of the U.S., where most of the tribal colleges are located. Other groups such as the Sun Corridor Network, Albuquerque Giga PoP and Great Plains Network are all nonprofit consortiums that run the internet. They have the means, access and knowledge to make digital connection across Indian Country a reality, and honestly, I’ve never met a better group of people that truly believe in the principle of “everyone rises together.”
Significant efforts would need to be undertaken to advance the ball on this initiative, but I think it’s entirely possible. Coordinating with tribal colleges to outfit their universities to serve as the backbone for an all-Native access network would skyrocket them into the digital age. The universities can become the data-centers for their tribes – housing all their critical documents, language preservation, research and historical information in one location. Monumental task? Absolutely. Achievable? Definitely.
The fact is, doing this would be a complete overhaul, from the fingertips to the cloud. User equipment, servers/switches, racks in the closets, networking equipment and fiber lines would all need to be improved. Some colleges and tribes would succeed while others would fail, but that does not make the initiative unworthy. There are so many stories of tribal community members pulling into parking lots of their tribal college or administration office to log into the free Wi-Fi because they live in a digital desert, like those maps I mentioned.
Unfortunately, what the COVID-19 crisis has shown is that tribal colleges are woefully unprepared, even more so than elementary schools in urban communities, to seamlessly move their operations to an online environment like many mainstream universities have been able to do.
Today, distance learning is not readily available to all tribal college students, nor is virtual meeting capacity or capability. The mapping of inequities throughout Indian Country has many layers that span food deserts, access to running water, economic opportunity, health disparities and technology. Crossing the digital divide after COVID-19 and enacting the Tribal Digital Divide Act can help change one of these layers.
Native American communities have long struggled with access to fresh, healthy foods. Now more than ever, access to these foods is critical – particularly during the global pandemic impacting us all. Monica Terkildsen, a member of the Wanblee Community Action Team (CAT), shared her experience as a Partnership With Native Americans (PWNA) collaborator while underscoring the importance of food sovereignty and preparedness for emergencies such as this unprecedented time. Her full written comments may be found on Great Nonprofits.
Wanblee is located on the northeast corner of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. “There are approximately 2,500 residents and about 92 jobs… about 50 of them are held by non-community members. We have a high unemployment rate, high rate of poverty, food insecurity – and land loss is well known amongst our residents.”
The Wanblee CAT members help increase family self-resilience and improve their community through capability building. The partnership between PWNA and Wanblee CAT began several years ago. “Ms. Phyllis Swift Hawk, GED Educator with Oglala Lakota College hosted [a meeting] and was addressing safety and preparedness for the community.” CAT submitted a subsequent grant application for food preservation and preparation that was funded by PWNA. These collaborative efforts brought forth a training on making traditional plant balm with adults and youth. “The partnership began to have ripple effects as more partners were brought forward. We began providing communities with seeds and hosting presentations on natural plants and medicines.”
Wanblee CAT and PWNA were then able to expand their trainings through the support of Newman’s Own Foundation. “We hosted a cooking class and learned from a local [Native] chef [brought in by PWNA] how to cook… cut meats and prepare healthy foods.” Methods of food preservation such as dehydration and canning were presented. “Ultimately, we were approved to purchase a freeze dryer…one of only two freeze dryers on the reservation – answering many of our local needs. We also planted a garden at the college center… and prepared fresh green beans for the youth.” Some of these students commented on how “they had never tasted anything so fresh.”
This year, community members attended the 2nd Annual Native Youth Food Sovereignty Summit in the Black Hills. Native youth were provided many opportunities to interact with one another while learning traditional ecological knowledge. “We [Phyllis and Monica] were able to present on a lot of the local plants/medicines that are available to us.” The youth were very fortunate that PWNA recognized the value in community history and indigenous knowledge.”
Monica shares her positive support of PWNA as her community journeys toward food security. Their future hopes: “to grow thousands of pounds of vegetables” and create a community cellar to serve three seasonal purposes – an underground greenhouse…a storm shelter…and a food storage area.”
“We look forward to a continued partnership that allows us to dream, to be food secure and to recognize our own indigenous knowledge and ensure our community has this knowledge in the future. Thank you, Partnership With Native Americans!”
For more information on PWNA’s food and emergency relief programs, please visit our website, or help Native American communities who are in need of food supplies during this pandemic by making a donation to our COVID-19 response fund.