Tribal Sovereignty During COVID-19

May 21, 2020

Tribal nations are showcasing leadership during COVID-19 by prioritizing the safety and health of vulnerable populations, tribal citizens, and non-citizens. To fight the spread of COVID-19, many tribal nations have exercised their sovereign right to regulate the movement of peoples on their lands. This includes opening travel check points and shelter-in-place orders. Despite Montana’s decisions to enter phase two of reopening, some tribal nations have extended stay-at-home orders and continued to implement travel checkpoints to protect their citizens and non-citizen travelers. Elder tribal citizens are an especially vulnerable group, and tribal nations have taken measures to safeguard them. The Blackfeet Tribe implemented an ordinance continuing their shelter-in-place order, closing roads within the reservation to essential use, and closing entrances to Glacier National Park located within the reservation. Blackfeet’s Incident Commander, Robert DesRosier, explained the tribal nation is not aligning with the Governor’s reopening timeline because, “we just have a vulnerable population, our elders... They’re the most sacred group of people that we honor and respect.” Elders hold important roles within tribal nations, communities, and families. Not only are elders beloved, they pass irreplaceable indigenous knowledge forms and languages on to future generations. The Crow Tribe opened a series of checkpoints in late March to limit the spread of COVID-19. More recently, the Crow Tribe extended its stay-at-home order to June 15th, and travelers have also been encouraged to not travel to the reservation even for recreational activities. Governor Bullock has respected the sovereignty of tribal nations to put in place these more restrictive measures while the rest of the state prepares for phase two of reopening.  In contrast, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem has attempted to order the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe to remove the travel checkpoints each tribal nation operates on their own lands. Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe responded with a letter citing the tribal nation’s sovereign authority to determine who travels through their lands, and the responsibility of the tribal nation to protect its citizens as well as non-citizens. In a recent survey, the top three categories of concern for tribal governments during COVID-19 were structural barriers to finance, access to food and supplies, and the well-being of elders and families. Many tribal nations do not have adequate economic resources to respond to COVID-19, and are experiencing a disproportionate impact to their revenues. As we have written about before, tribal governments operate many of the same public services as other levels of government, but they must do so without the usual tax revenue other levels of government rely on, such as property tax. State and local governments have successfully challenged in court tribal governments’ exclusive right to levy taxes within their reservation and stifled reservation economic growth. As a result, many tribes must rely on their natural resources and tribally owned business enterprises as their only source of revenue outside federal dollars. However, COVID-19 has forced many of these tribal enterprises, such as non-essential businesses and casinos, to close. Tribal nations and their citizens also face structural barriers to healthcare and emergency medical resources, and it has become a starker reality in the context of COVID-19. Despite the United States government’s legal obligation, or federal trust responsibility, to provide health care to tribal nations and their citizens, the chronic underfunding of the Indian Health Service (IHS) existed long before the pandemic. In addition to structural barriers to health care, settler-colonialism’s attempt to erase indigenous food systems, economies, and lands negatively impacted the health of American Indians. These health disparities, such as the fact American Indians are three times as likely to have diabetes than whites, could affect susceptibilities to COVID-19. However, it is important to emphasize that these susceptibilities do not have to do with a lack of immunity. These disparities are direct results of historic and ongoing policies, such as the Indian Removal Act, pursued by the federal government, states, and settlers. On March 27th, the federal government enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES Act) which would provide $8 billion to tribal nations to buffer the economic impact of coronavirus. However, these funds were delayed for weeks and some tribal nations are still waiting. In Montana, all eight federally-recognized tribal nations are expected to receive CARES Act funds. The Crow Tribe, for instance, received CARES Act funds on May 13th to purchase personal protective equipment, testing kits, and other tribal government response efforts. The recently federally-recognized Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians does not have an IHS facility and will not receive funds to support medical staff. Little Shell will receive funds for housing, but Chairman Gray worries this may not be enough to assist the tribal nation’s ability to fight the virus. Governor Bullock has made efforts towards making testing more accessible to tribal nations during the pandemic, and recently sent kits to the Fort Belknap, Blackfeet, and Crow reservations. Despite the numerous barriers they face, tribal nations continue to consider public health and safety for all, expanding beyond their own citizens. Tribal nations have prioritized vulnerable populations, such as elders, as integral to the fabric of the tribal nation, community, and families.
Montana Budget & Policy Center

Shaping policy for a stronger Montana.

MBPC is a nonprofit organization focused on providing credible and timely research and analysis on budget, tax, and economic issues that impact low- and moderate-income Montana families.