Native Americans ‘Left Out in the Cold’ Under Trump Press Biden for Action

WASHINGTON — When President Biden introduced Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico as his pick for interior secretary, making her the first Native American to be selected for a Cabinet position, he acknowledged the country’s long history of failing the land’s first citizens.

“The federal government has long broken promises to Native American tribes who have been on this land since time immemorial,” he said. “With her appointment, Congresswoman Haaland will help me strengthen the nation to nation relationship.”

But with Mr. Biden’s election and Ms. Haaland’s nomination, tribal communities are looking for more than vague pledges.

Angry over their treatment during the Trump administration, which oversaw a deeply flawed response to the pandemic on tribal lands and pursued other policies at odds with Native American priorities, they are now hopeful that Mr. Biden, who benefited from their enthusiastic support in battleground states like Arizona last year, will back a far-reaching agenda to address the poverty that has long ravaged their communities.

They are pushing to ensure that any infrastructure plan the Biden administration pursues includes substantial money to improve access to water and electricity and to improve roads and bridges. They want more funding for their woeful health care service. They want changes to federal land use policy to minimize environmental damage from energy projects. And they want a renewed commitment to improving their schools.

In more than a dozen interviews with tribal leaders, health officials and lawyers across the country, many expressed cautious optimism that the Biden administration will follow through on efforts to address 150 years of systematic failures and breaches of treaty agreements.

“The Trump administration left us out in the cold when it came to the pandemic — all the federal aid that came as a result of the stimulus act, and other acts, throughout this year were meant to try to help entities deal with the pandemic, but we were left out in the cold,” said Tim Davis, chairman of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana.

“There is so much we are going to have to do and we are hoping we will get that opportunity with the new administration,” Mr. Davis said.

One main cause of their optimism is the nomination of Ms. Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe.

If confirmed, she would oversee about 500 million acres of public land and federal policies affecting the 574 federally recognized tribal governments. She would run an agency responsible for shaping policy on Native American education, tribal law enforcement and the use of the country’s natural resources.

During the campaign, Mr. Biden released a policy agenda outlining his plans for Native Americans and tribal communities. It included proposals to immediately reinstate the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, nominate judges who understand federal Indian law, and fully fund the Indian Health Service.

That agenda in part reflected the importance of the Native American vote to Democrats. A New York Times analysis of precinct data found that the Biden-Harris ticket received more than 80 percent of Navajo Nation and Hopi reservation votes in Arizona, which swung by a narrow margin into the Democratic column.

Mr. Biden received about 13,500 more votes from the reservations than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. Mr. Biden won Arizona by about 11,000 votes, or three-tenths of a percentage point. Donald J. Trump won the state by 3.5 percentage points in 2016.

Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation, one of the hardest areas hit by the pandemic in the country, was among the Native American voters who helped Mr. Biden win Arizona. The tribe, which overlaps parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, has suffered more than 1,000 coronavirus-related deaths and has seen more than 28,000 positive cases among the reservation’s more than 170,000 residents.

Mr. Nez campaigned for the Biden-Harris ticket, including taking part in a series of television ads that ran through Election Day. He said the new administration is already have a positive effect.

In early February, Mr. Biden signed a major disaster declaration for the Navajo Nation to provide more federal funding to support vaccine distribution, medical staffing and resources. With the help of the additional resources, Mr. Nez said the tribe had been able to dole out 98 percent of the vaccine doses it was given.

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Mr. Nez said he would now like to see the administration focus on aging infrastructure.

“Our roads, our bridges, our water lines, our electricity lines: Here on the Navajo Nation, 30 to 40 percent of our people don’t have running water, 30 to 40 percent of our people don’t have electricity,” he said. “So if there’s going to be a major emphasis on infrastructure, we want Navajo Nation to get running water and electricity.”

Esther Lucero is the chief executive of the Seattle Indian Health Board, a community health center that serves more than 6,000 urban American Indians and Alaska Natives. Ms. Lucero said she hoped to see significant investment in the current public health system for Native Americans.

The Indian Health Service, based in Rockville, Md., and often referred to as I.H.S., consists of 26 hospitals, 56 health centers and 32 health stations. The hospitals range in size from four beds to 133. The Indian Health Service is broken into a dozen service regions across the country, each one serving tribes living in that area.

For decades, the agency has been underfunded, understaffed and routinely criticized for providing inadequate care to the 2.2 million members of the nation’s tribal communities. Its performance during the pandemic came under especially intense criticism.

“We have to put together an aggressive budget formula to get the Indian Health Service fully funded,” Ms. Lucero said. Providing additional funding to the 12 tribal epidemiology health centers, for example, is key to maintaining and tracking health care data about their citizens, she said.

The intersection of federal land use and environmental and energy policy is also at the heart of the tribal agenda for the new administration. Mr. Biden is facing calls to shut down the Dakota Access pipeline after a court ruled that the Trump administration broke the law when allowing for the its construction. It’s a move that would spell victory for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe which touches both North and South Dakota. The pipeline crosses just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

The pipeline, which carries oil from North Dakota to Illinois, has drawn significant opposition from environmentalists and tribes over the years, spurring massive protests.

It was completed in 2017 after it was revived by Mr. Trump, who reversed an Obama administration decision to deny it a permit.

The push comes after Mr. Biden revoked a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have transported oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

“As the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, we have been engaged with our congressional delegation to put forth a number of priorities, and as much of the world knows for the past four and half years, we have prioritized passionately opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline,” said Ira Taken Alive, the tribe’s vice chairman.

Rodney M. Bordeaux, the president of the Rosebud Sioux, said that the federal government’s responsibility for improving the overall quality of life for tribal residents starts by honoring the trust and treaty responsibilities across all areas of the government.

“We are always on the bottom of everything but it’s a trust responsibility and a treaty responsibility — and they have to step up,” said Mr. Bordeaux, whose tribal nation is within southwestern South Dakota.

In 2016, President Barack Obama created the Bears Ears National Monument in Southern Utah. “The land is profoundly sacred to many Native American tribes, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, Hopi Nation, and Zuni Tribe,” Mr. Obama said at the time.

Nearly a year later, Mr. Trump drastically shrank the monument, a sprawling region of red rock canyons. Oil was the central factor in driving the decision to shrink Bears Ears, triggering a legal battle over the land.

Matt Campbell, a lawyer for the Native American Rights Fund, has represented a number of tribes across the country on legal issues, including the rollback on the federal land protection of Bear Ears.

“Bears Ears National Monument is something we are advocating the administration on,” Mr. Campbell said. “The Obama administration had created the monument. It is the first ever monument that was created at the request of tribal nations and President Trump revoked that monument.”

Bill Sterud, chairman of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians in Washington State, said he voted for the Biden-Harris ticket because he thought they could change the tone in Washington.

Mr. Sterud said he views the nomination of Ms. Haaland as a breakthrough for Indian Country. But he said he still plans to closely monitor the new administration’s performance on delivering promises of change. Upholding tribal nation’s treaty rights, addressing climate change and improving the education system are top priorities the administration should address, he said.

“Education is one of those things that’s the most important for our young people,” he said. “We have our own school that has 800 students and making sure that school continues to be and gets better and becomes a top-flight school is important.”

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