CARES Act Funding For Native Tribes Reveals Continued US Colonization

April 29, 2020

The recent CARES Act is another example of the continued effort to dismiss Indigenous peoples' sovereignty, and doesn't provide adequate funding to fight COVID-19.

The recent CARES Act is another example of the continued effort to dismiss Indigenous peoples' sovereignty, and doesn't provide adequate funding to fight COVID-19.

Victor Booth relaxes outside of his home on September 10, 2019 in Kivalina, Alaska. Kivalina is situated at the very end of an eight-mile barrier reef located between a lagoon and the Chukchi Sea. The village is 83 miles above the Arctic circle. Kivalina and a few other native coastal Alaskan villages face the warming of the Arctic. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Story Transcript

This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Jacqueline Luqm…: This is Jacqueline Luqman with the Real News Network. As if centuries of colonialism, genocide, and near social eraser were not enough, the indigenous people of this country are facing yet another challenge to their existence. This time it is the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) among Native communities as well as the ongoing onslaught against them from the United States government. COVID-19 is wreaking havoc among Native populations, hitting them particularly hard. But what makes their fight against this virus even worse is the continued disrespect and dismissal of the rights of Native people by the US government. Joining me to talk about the struggle to fight the coronavirus and the US government that Native people are enduring today is Nick Estes. Nick Estes is a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico. Professor Estes, thank you so much for joining me.

Nick Estes: Thanks for inviting me on the show, Jacqueline.

Jacqueline Luqm…: Now, Professor Estes the CARES Act was just passed and it’s being implemented and there is a provision in the legislation that allocates funding for Native tribes, but there are some problems with the way that provision was written, so there are obviously some problems with the way those funds are suppose to be allocated. What is going on right now in regard to a lawsuit against the US Treasury Department in relation to the funds that are supposed to be allocated to Native tribes through the CARES Act but could go actually to corporations?

Nick Estes: Right. That’s a really great question, and I think it deserves a long explanation. Something that I may be able to do just within the short amount of time, but I’ll try my best. So first of all, the CARES Act was a provision in the relief funding for coronavirus allocated to tribes. And what we mean by tribes is very kind of murky in the United States because tribes don’t get the opportunity or have the autonomy to do to self-define. But actually those definitions are applied by the federal government. So for example, Tara Sweeney who is a [newbeyak 00:02:39] indigenous person, Alaska Native who’s currently the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs for the Department of Interior. She’s the second Native woman to occupy that post. The first one was, Ada Deer, back in the ’70s and ’80s and she was a Menominee woman whose tribe was actually terminated by the federal government.

And when Tara Sweeney was appointed to this position, she began the process of termination of the Mashpee Wampanoag. People may know them as the mythical kind of encounter between European settlers at the Plymouth Colony and the so-called first Thanksgiving, which we know is a complete kind of rewriting of that history. And in fact these were colonizers and invaders. But the Mashpee Wampanoag recently had about 300 acres of their land targeted for taking out of trust status. And where this really gets into the CARES Act is that the definition of a tribe is actually determined by the United States government and the federal government and in particular the Department of Interior. So somebody like Tara Sweeney, who herself is indigenous, is overseeing the definition of other tribes in a very authoritarian system. It’s not democratic. We don’t get to choose who occupies the position of the Secretary of Interior.

And it’s important to remember the Department of Interior manages wildlife, public lands and indigenous people. It’s a very peculiar hold over from this period of settler colonialism from the 19th century. But nonetheless, we’re still caught in the system where this department is defining who counts as a tribe and who doesn’t count as a tribe. And if you know anything about the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Land Management, for example, there’s a lot of crossover between the oil and gas industry and the energy sectors and the appointments that are made to these particular positions.

And so somebody like Tara Sweeney for example, was a former oil lobbyist. And not only that, she was also the former vice president of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which is a for-profit company created under the Alaska Native Settlement Claims Act of 1971. And this is important to kind of distinguish though. I mean there are Alaska Native corporations, but many of them were created as a form of kind of government and social welfare system for Native people. And it wasn’t necessarily Alaska Natives’ choice to have this. It was something that was imposed.

So here in the Lower 48, American Indians have what we call the Indian Reorganization Act, and what that means is back in 1935, during the great depression. So going back to moments of economic crisis, the United States decided that it was going to change its federal relationship to tribes, and to actually impose a form of government upon us. And so we didn’t really have a choice. So it’s important to remember the Alaskan Native corporations wasn’t an internally derived kind of system, corporate system by Alaska Natives. And there’s different kind of varying kind of forms of government, whether it’s the village councils or the village government more at a regional level or the Alaska Native corporations themselves. So it’s important to kind of distinguish how those things are being allocated and where that money is going to.

But it does raise the question of whether this money should be allocated to a for-profit enterprise, especially enterprises that are engaged in oil and gas extraction. And so for example, Arctic Slope, which Tara Sweeney was the former vice president of, is the wealthiest of the 12 existing regional Native corporations with $3 billion in annual revenues from oil and gas related assets. Then that’s just something from 2008. So what do we make of bailing out a for-profit enterprise? We could ask that same question of Indian casinos. Indian casinos are actually the 13th largest employer in the United States, but they’re not receiving any of this money. So why is it that like an Alaska Native corporation that primarily traffics in oil and gas exploration and extraction is getting a bailout, when something like an Indian casino isn’t.

Jacqueline Luqm…: And that is the basis for this lawsuit. The fact that large for-profit corporations that are called Alaska Native corporations could potentially receive an outsized proportion of the funds that are allocated or supposed to be allocated to Native tribes through the CARES Act, but then that would have a detrimental impact on the allocated funds or what’s left of those funds that would go to actual tribes. So explain the impact of that if these Alaska Native corporations do receive these funds that are allocated for tribes. And what that means for the rest of the tribes.

Nick Estes: So let’s look at Alaska for example. Alaska is very big. It’s home to a lot of natural resources, oil and gas being one of them. But also there’s a lot of gold mining that happens there. But if Alaska were an independent country, it would be in the top twenties in terms of landmass, or in the top 20. It’s also home to more than 200 indigenous nations and much like the indigenous nations here in the United States, state roads do not connect these geographically isolated communities. A lot of times people have to do overland travel through snowmobiling or snow machines or even air, air flights. And like some of the reservations here in the lower 48, many villages don’t have running water, making CDC guidelines to constantly wash one’s hands a near impossibility. And many villages are overcrowded or have housing shortages, making things such as physical distancing a near impossibility. And there’s also limited internet access, which makes all these kinds of moves to teach online for school children a near impossibility.

So it raises the question of why is the priority being put on bailing out these for-profit corporations, which may or may not be allocating resources back to these tribes because the conditions that they live in are pre-existing to the coronavirus. The coronavirus is only exposing the poor quality of life that many Native people live in. And that’s a direct result of ongoing colonialism. And you see the same kind of factors happening in a place like the Navajo Nation. And so if we think about the Navajo Nation in comparison to the Alaska Native corporations, the Navajo Nation also engages in oil and gas exploration and extraction activities. But its economic activities are not getting the same bailout as these ANCs. So it’s important to compare those two cases. And also many Brule Navajo people don’t have access to clean drinking water on the Eastern Agency, which is on the Eastern side within the boundaries of the state of New Mexico. One out of every three Navajo homes doesn’t have access to clean drinking water or running water or electricity.

So these are the conditions that Navajo people are facing, indigenous people are facing, prior to the outbreak. And so it’s really taxing the infrastructure. And if we think about what is happening in the priorities of this current administration, especially with the stacking of the oil lobbyist within the Department of Interior, Trump is moving forward on the Keystone XL pipeline. Thousands of workers are descending on work sites up in the Northern Great Plains, where I’m from, where my people are from. And these workers are coming from the outside, not only putting themselves at risk, but they’re also putting vulnerable communities who already lack the infrastructure, the health infrastructure to deal with COVID-19. And if you take the example of the state of New Mexico, we can say that this isn’t about party lines. This isn’t about Democrat versus Republican because here from top to bottom in this state, it’s a blue state. It’s a democratically controlled state that has benefited immensely from the oil and gas industry. But in this state, Native people make up 11% of the population, but we account for 44% of all COVID-19 cases right now.

Jacqueline Luqm…: Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. I mean this is an epidemic within itself in Native and indigenous communities. Professor Estes, I want to talk about the implications of the way that CARES funds could be allocated if they are allocated according to things like landmass or land size or population or even COVID infection rates within a population. Because there are issues that indigenous communities are facing in regards to all of those particular ways that are not laid out in the CARES legislation. The issue seems to be, and correct me if I’m wrong, that there is no measure for how anybody would decide who gets what funds on who gets how much funds that are supposed to be allocated in the CARES Act.

So that is a part of the focus of this legislation that that needs to be addressed. But what would happen if some entity, the courts or the Department of Treasury decides to determine the allocation of these funds by landmass or how much land a tribe or tribal entity has or controls. How would that affect other tribes in the nation?

Nick Estes: That’s a really good question because the current sort of formula that has been created, there was a leak that happened prior to this coming out. And I think that’s important to highlight that there was somebody on the inside, a whistle blower on the inside has been leaking information to the public and letting them know that this formula is based on landmass. But also there’s a question about the kinds of things that count, as far as when you’re counting, when you’re adding up, what counts is a landmass.

And I brought up earlier about how roads … There’s a lack of roads. But roads in the Alaska Native corporation cases were being counted as part of the landmass, even though they didn’t exist. And so the formula was this … according to this leak, and these are all speculations. So it’s not true. It’s not necessarily proven yet, but it’s speculated that these Alaska Native corporations, or at least it’s alleged I should say, that these Alaska Native corporations had kind of the first look over the formula. So they got a kind of a headstart before lower 48 tribes did.

And so they knew what to ask for. And so that’s why you see within the CARES Relief Act you have almost by the hundreds more of claims coming from the Alaska Native corporations and Alaska Native entities than you do out of the lower 48 because they had … The suspicion is that they had a heads up, which means that there’s kind of some insider trading happening and that perhaps this is the allegation. This is the court case. This is the charges that are being made against the Treasury but also against the Department of Interior, that Tara Sweeny was letting these corporations know ahead of time that this was going to happen. And that these were the criteria.

I will say though that it’s important to remember that tribes had initially asked for $40 billion. And then the Democrats went forward with asking for $20 billion. And what came out of that after … The reason why the stimulus package was held up is because the Republicans didn’t want to allocate $20 billion. And so they finally settled on $8 billion. And that’s what actually held up the entire stimulus package was the CARES Act. Because it was a contestation over tribes. And we know how the Trump administration and his lackeys feel about indigenous people. It’s evident in his derision of Pocahontas, who’s a real historical figure. It’s evident in how he targeted tribes in the Northeast, who he saw as competition to his own casino enterprises and actually advocated against letting their federal recognition.

And we see that with the appointing of oil and gas lobbyists within the Department of Interior to continue to erode tribal sovereignty, but to continue to sacrifice tribal lands for the greater kind of economic gain. And so what we really need to think about is that this is a colonial system. This is pitting Alaska Natives against the lower 48. This isn’t our decision. This isn’t a contest that we tried to implement. It was actually implemented on us from the top down by people we didn’t elect. So we didn’t elect the secretary of interior. We didn’t elect Tara Sweeney.

So it’s a very authoritarian system. There’s no other way to describe it. And so when the United States is pointing the finger at other governments for being authoritarian, all you have to look is at the indigenous people of this country to say, “Hey, look why are we the last to be considered at the end of this. Why is it that we were the thing that held up everything?” And it’s not we don’t want to be competing. The response should not be one of competition where we’re trying to get a small slice of the already really tiny piece of the pie. The values that need to be implemented are for access to free and accessible testing. We need to have bailouts for tribal industries. We need to consider fact that 70% of tribally enrolled people do not live on Indian reservations.

So this hyper emphasis on reservations is the site where the aid needs to go forgets that here in the city of Albuquerque, where I’m calling from, 10% of the Navajo Nation lives here in this city, but they’re not being talked about because the way that this country and the federal government perceives of these problems, it’s somewhere out elsewhere? It’s not somewhere that lives in New York City or Washington, DC or Albuquerque, New Mexico. So we have to reconsider that the tribal populations are primarily not rule-based populations. And so we have to think about urban healthcare, but also thinking about at the end of this that this can’t be the system for allocating life chances in this country. We can’t be competing for a scarcity of resources and that we should be operating on an indigenous principle of abundance and care for each other.

Jacqueline Luqm…: And professor, I’m glad you brought up the point that so many indigenous people don’t actually live on reservations because I feel like that goes back to what I said early about the nearest social eraser of indigenous people and the lifestyles and folk ways and traditions and just their very existence and how indigenous people live. And we are seeing this play out even as states are becoming more proactive or more stringent in collecting demographic data in relation to the infection rates and the spread of the coronavirus because some states don’t actually record indigenous people separately as they do people who are infected with coronavirus, as they do African Americans, Latinos.

Not all people designate indigenous people as a separate demographic outside of other, when they’re recording the people who are infected with coronavirus. What impact does that have on the allocation of these meager funds? Because from 40 million to 8 million, billion dollars, that’s not a lot of money to address the structural needs that people have to combat this virus. But what does that mean when people are not even accurately recorded in the number of cases of people who have coronavirus in this country in the first place?

Nick Estes: It means a lot. I mean it gets into the question of why or how we define indigenous in the first place. So I want to take a step back and think about how all of a sudden crossing a border don’t count as indigenous. And if we think about how even the Guatemalan cases that have arisen, haven arisen because of deportations from the United States. And where did those so-called deportees, mostly indigenous people come in contact with the coronavirus? They came in contact from the United States, but they don’t necessarily count within how we’re counting indigeneity. And so it’s this problematic that really gets down to the purpose of a settler colonial society. The settler colonial society is organized primarily around the eraser of indigenous people, because indigeneity actually represents land. And the more indigenous people you have, the more land that is under question. And the more claims to land that you have under question.

But it also intersects with … Going back to Trump’s allegation of, “These don’t look like Indians to me,” in front of a congressional hearing. What he was saying is that these tribal communities within the Northeast don’t look phenotypically like me. For example, as you know, somebody from the Northern Plains, because we kind of stand in for like what people think of indigenous. But they had a mixed heritage. Many of them have African heritage. And that’s important to remember that it’s the white supremacist kind of orientation of who counts as what. That really determines who is indigenous.

And so indigenous people, we don’t really see our … I’ll say this, the president of he Oglala Sioux Tribe, Julian Running Bear once said, he said, “We are a multiracial nation of people. We are black, we have light skin, some of us are browner, but we are a nation first and foremost before we are a racial category.” And so I think that’s important to remember that sovereignty, who we claim as our own, is incredibly important at how we count these things. But also we should not seed the definition of indigeneity to a settler state.

Jacqueline Luqm…: So what do we look for as this lawsuit, which is in federal court. I believe it’s in federal court. And there should be some ruling at least by the beginning of the next week as allocated funds are slated to be disbursed on April 26th. I believe that is the target date that was mentioned in the lawsuit. What should we be looking for as this lawsuit makes its way through the court system and what can we do?Regular citizens, our viewers, what can we do to assist members of the indigenous communities in combating this scourge as it goes on, as it affects all of us? And then at the end of this Professor Estes, what can we do to address and to resolve this continued onslaught from this settler colonialist, white supremacist government? Because it’s not just this administration. Let’s make this clear. This government on our indigenous family members here in this country. Tell us what can we do.

Nick Estes: So the allocation of resources and the health of indigenous people and the integrity of our sovereignty and our land base are only as good as the agreements, the original agreements we made with this settler government. And it’s everyone’s obligation. These are in the forms of treaties. These in the forms of negotiated kind of coexistence in some cases. These are in the forms of agreements that have been ratified through Congress or enacted through executive order. These are everybody’s responsibilities to uphold and to protect.

So for example, the US Constitution. I think it’s the … It says that treaties are the supreme law of the land. And the only way to rectify this particular situation is for this government, not necessarily this government, but the people on this land to uphold those original agreements. And this means a permanent, adequate, and humane allocation of actual resources, and I’m not just talking about money, I’m talking about land as well, that were guaranteed through these original agreements that are defined and negotiated by indigenous principles and according to indigenous law. This doesn’t mean separatism. This doesn’t mean indigenous people are going to somehow do what Europeans did to us. It means-

Jacqueline Luqm…: That is always the fear though, isn’t it?

Nick Estes: It is. And it’s the whole thing about the great replacement, the fear of the so called white genocide. These tropes that we constantly hear primarily from the reactionary kind of racist right wing, that is Trump’s base. But most kind of everyday people, I think if they understood the situation is still colonial with indigenous people, they would be morally outraged to understand that this kind of system is in place, this kind of authoritarianism by the federal government is still in place. And that indigenous peoples still cannot operate according to our own principles of democracy, our own principles of nationhood, and our own principles of coexistence.

And so as this court case unfolds, I think people should be asking themselves, why is it that the Navajo Nation, much like many individual people in this country who don’t have access to healthcare, are resorting to GoFundMe. An entire nation of people is resorting to a GoFundMe account to address a pandemic that, by law, the federal government is responsible for allocating resources to. And so this is a question, it’s not just like this was a meme that appeared in Indian country kind of circles was that there was, “Oh you’re out of a job. You don’t have good access to healthcare. You may not be able to drive your car to work anymore.” And it’s like, “Oh no, Americans are experiencing what it’s like to be an Indian for 30 days.”

But it’s not about that. It’s not about a race to the bottom. It should not be about a zero-sum game. It’s not about an oppression Olympics. We should be looking at what happening to our black relatives, our black brothers and sisters, as well as our Chicano [inaudible 00:27:48] relatives and brothers and sisters. We understand that we are not all in this together, when somebody says that. That some of us will be affected more. And the last shall come first. That should be always our principal, when we’re talking about justice in this country. And it begins with the land. It begins with acknowledging those original agreements and understanding that it’s everybody’s responsibility to uphold them.

Jacqueline Luqm…: Well, Professor Nick Estes, thank you so much for spending the time today to talk about not just this lawsuit that is against the US Treasury Department for the fair allocation of funds to indigenous people throughout this country, but also for making it clear that Native people still live under a very authoritarian, white supremacist, colonialist oppression through the United States government. And it is all of our responsibility to dismantle that system, not just for our Native relatives, but for all of us and all of our benefit as well. Thank you so much for joining me.

Nick Estes: Thanks for having me on, Jacqueline.

Jacqueline Luqm…: And thank you for watching. This is Jacquelyn Luqman with the Real News Network from the belly of the beast, Washington, DC.