Letter to the Hon. Catherine Lhamon, Chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights - Haaland, Warren Request U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to Examine Federal Government's Response to Impact of COVID-19 in Indian Country
Dear Chair Lhamon:
We write to request that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights update the findings and
recommendations of its report, Broken Promises: Continuing Federal Funding Shortfall for
Native Americans, in light of the ongoing impacts that the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) is
having on Native Nations across the United States.
We were pleased to learn that at the Commission's meeting that took place on Friday, May 8,
2020, the Commissioners voted to examine the civil rights impacts of the pandemic. We
wholeheartedly agree with the Commission's statement that day: "As the nation's civil rights
watchdog, we have a unique responsibility during times of crisis to speak out on behalf of
communities who are directly or indirectly impacted by the crisis." This unprecedented
pandemic is having a severe impact on American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian
people. The Administration's failure to uphold the trust responsibility to provide adequate relief,
health services, and public safety resources to tribal communities has exacerbated the
pandemic's impact. This failure requires the Commission's voice.
Federal action to empower the United States' 574 federally recognized Native Nations and
uphold trust and treaty responsibilities is more important than ever. For instance, as of last week,
the Navajo Nation had a coronavirus infection rate higher than any state or territory, and as of
two weeks ago, it had a death rate higher than all but four states. The pandemic has forced
closure of tribal businesses that serve as many tribes' economic backbone. The pandemic,
coupled with inadequate federal funding, has contributed to the devastation of Nation Nations'
economies, and has prevented tribal citizens from accessing healthcare, education, employment, and public safety resources. This has been especially harmful because Native Americans disproportionately suffer from preexisting health conditions, high poverty and unemployment rates, and other circumstances that make them especially susceptible to complications from COVID-19. All of this only underscores the importance of the Commission's work and the need for robust and immediate action.
The federal government's insufficient response to this crisis to date represents yet another broken
promise to sovereign tribal governments. The White House reportedly opposed the provision of
direct aid to tribal governments in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES)
Act--aid that is crucial for tribal nations to provide needed government services to their
citizens. Fortunately, due to the efforts of some in Congress, the CARES Act provided this aid
under the Coronavirus Relief Fund. After the enactment of the law, however, the Department of
the Treasury delayed disbursement of the funds for weeks. The Administration also initially
excluded important tribal businesses from the CARES Act's Paycheck Protection Program
(PPP), despite the statute's clear wording indicating that Congress intended all small tribal
businesses to be included.
The federal response to the health care aspects of the crisis--particularly a lack of funding for
the Indian Health Service (IHS)--has also fallen short of what Indian Country needs. Broken
Promises noted that per capita IHS health care expenditures in 2017 were $3,332, compared to
$9,207 per person for federal health care spending nationally--a situation it rightly called
"inequitable and unequal." This was before the pandemic. Since the pandemic, the situation has
only gotten worse. IHS, tribal health programs, and urban Indian organizations are suffering
major losses due to a lack of third-party reimbursements from private insurance, Medicare,
Medicaid, and the Veterans Health Administration. Tribal nations and urban Indian organizations have had to navigate red tape in order to receive desperately needed supplies and relief funds. The CARES Act provided less than Indian Country requested for pandemic health care needs, and as telehealth becomes increasingly important, approximately half of IHS facilities lack access to broadband or reliable bandwidth, as do many people living on tribal lands.
We are alarmed by the federal government's lack of urgency in responding to the health and
economic crisis facing Native communities. We recognize that the Broken Promises report
entailed years of work, and that a shorter timeframe is appropriate for this request. As a result,
we understand that any updates will be narrower in scope than the Broken Promises report was.
We respectfully request that the Commission consider examining COVID-19's civil rights
impacts on Native peoples, with an eye to answering the following questions:
1. How have the problems identified in the Broken Promises report been exacerbated by the
pandemic? Have these problems made it more difficult for Native populations to cope with
and react to the pandemic?
2. Have the congressional responses to the pandemic--especially the passage of the CARES
Act and prior stimulus packages--done enough to help Native peoples cope with the
challenges posed by COVID-19? If not, how have they fallen short?
3. Has the Executive Branch's responses to the pandemic--including its statutory interpretation
and administrative implementation of laws passed by Congress--done enough to help Native
peoples cope with the challenges posed by COVID-19? If not, how have the responses been
4. Have any of the findings or recommendations from the Broken Promises report changed or
been reinforced since the arrival of COVID-19? If so, how?
5. How has the lack of wireless networks on tribal lands--specifically broadband and telephone
service--created additional barriers for Native Americans to cope with and react to the
a. In answering this question, please consider at least the following: equal access to
health care services (including telehealth and IT modernization at IHS facilities20);
education (especially students attending Bureau of Indian Education schools21 and
tribal colleges and universities); public safety and life-saving measures; hindrances to
economic development22 (including telework and employment opportunities);
COVID-19 response (including accessibility to stimulus funds or PPP applications);
and social distancing efforts to digitalize federal Census count and voting through
We greatly appreciate your time and attention to this matter.