Update: Tribal Sovereignty During COVID-19

Oct 16, 2020

Our previous blog, Tribal Sovereignty During COVID-19, covered the actions tribal nations have taken in reservations across Montana to protect public health and prevent the spread of COVID-19. While Montana has moved closer to reopening, tribal nations have continued to prioritize public health through measures that include extended stay-at-home orders and travel checkpoints. Tribal nations are now faced with an increase of coronavirus cases on their reservations because surrounding areas and travelers have not adhered to the same measures. This pandemic has made evident how necessary respecting tribal sovereignty is to American Indian health and public health. As we wrote in our previous blog, tribal nations are more susceptible to the pandemic for many intersecting reasons. 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 disparities are direct results of historic and ongoing policies pursued by the federal government, states, and settlers. In Montana, American Indians make up just 6.7 percent of the population but 15 percent of the total number of coronavirus cases. The past month has been especially hard on tribal communities who have seen a rise in the amount of COVID-19 cases impacting tribal citizens, including many elders. Elder tribal citizens are an especially vulnerable group, and tribal nations have taken measures to safeguard them. Elders hold important roles within tribal nations, communities, and families. Not only are elders beloved, they pass on irreplaceable indigenous knowledge and languages to future generations. Over the past three weeks on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, the tribal nation lost 24 citizens due to the coronavirus, and many were tribal elders. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe has taken steps to flatten the curve on the reservation. The tribal nation has implemented a reservation-wide curfew and stay-at-home order that it recently extended until total active COVID-19 cases remain at or below 50 for 30 consecutive days. According to the Northern Cheyenne Board of Health, there were 657 cumulative positive tests as of October 2. In addition, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe has been distributing personal protective equipment (PPE), food, hygiene products, and more to its citizens. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe also has an elderly assistance program in place that provides services such as grocery and pharmacy pick-up. The Crow Tribe of Indians reported 899 cumulative positive tests and 24 deaths on the reservation by October 2. The Crow Tribe of Indians is continuing to encourage travelers to stay off of the reservation. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognized the efforts of the Crow’s Incident Command Center and its efficacy. The Blackfeet Nation closed all tribal programs and departments from October 4-25, with the exception of emergency and essential services, to assist in curbing the rising number of COVID-19 cases on the reservation. The Blackfeet Nation also distributes goods and PPE to its citizens. According to Blackfeet COVID-19 Incident Command, there were 325 active cases of COVID-19 on the Blackfeet Reservation as of October 6. Although the federal government enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act on March 27, providing $8 billion to tribal nations to buffer the economic impact of the coronavirus, there is still more need. Some tribal nations have used this funding to purchase PPE and testing kits and have funded other tribal government response efforts. Many tribal nations have also decided to give stimulus relief checks to their tribal citizens to offset some of the financial hardships of the pandemic. Most are often less than a thousand dollars per person depending on the tribal nation. However, these assistance programs are not recurring, and the funds are limited. Although these funds may provide some temporary relief to tribal citizens, this does not change structural inequities like access to health care. Respecting tribal sovereignty throughout this pandemic and beyond is integral to the health of tribal citizens. This could be the fulfillment of treaty obligations to fully fund IHS, deferring to tribal taxation authority, and adhering to tribal nations’ travel restrictions. Everyone has a role to play in stopping the spread of COVID-19 and protecting those most susceptible to it.
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.