Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and running mate Kamala Harris on Thursday released a sweeping policy plan to address long-standing issues for U.S. tribes, from boosting health care initiatives to appointing more Native Americans to key federal positions and meeting treaty obligations.
The 15-page policy aims to improve ties between tribal governments and the U.S., combat the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in Native American communities, fight climate change and help tribal nations develop their economies, among other initiatives.
”The United States of America was founded on the notion of equality for all. We’ve always strived to meet that ideal, but never fully lived up to it,” the document said. “Throughout our history, this promise has been denied to Native Americans who have lived on this land since time immemorial.”
The plan describes the effects of COVID-19 on tribal land, where “Native Americans contracted the disease at 3.5 times the rate of white Americans, and in some states, they are dying at a rate five times their population share.”
A host of underlying factors ranging from high rates of poverty, a lack of housing and running water, and the prevalence of chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma and substance abuse disorders all fueled the disproportionate and devastating impacts of the virus in Indian Country.
Early in the pandemic, the city of Gallup — which serves as a trade hub for multiple tribes, including the eastern portion of the Navajo Nation — had among the highest mortality rates for COVID-19 in the nation. Gallup and the Navajo Nation at one time also had more novel coronavirus cases per capita than anywhere in the country.
About 10.6 percent of New Mexico’s population is Native American and more than 2 million acres of land in the state belongs to sovereign tribal nations, according to the nonprofit New Mexico Voices for Children.The calamitous spread of the virus in tribal communities prompted Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to invoke a little-used Riot Control Act, mobilizing the National Guard to enforce a 10-day lockdown in Gallup.
The pandemic also suppressed voting in Native American communities during the June primary while the rest of the state saw increased voter turnout.
The Biden and Harris plan says the candidates aim to reinstate the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, appoint Native Americans “to high-level government positions,” nominate judges sympathetic to tribal nations, fulfill federal trust and treaty obligations and address “chronic underfunding of unmet federal obligations to Indian Country.”
The plan also calls for full implementation of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which created standards for placing Native American children in foster homes and protecting tribes in child welfare cases.
Biden also would “work with tribes to explore more ways to expand self-governance opportunities,” the plan said.
According to the document, a Biden-Harris administration would support a long list of policy initiatives aimed at improving health and health care on tribal lands, addressing climate change, safeguarding tribal natural resources, tackling “the crisis of violence against Native women, children and the elderly,” making it easier for Native Americans to vote and improving economic development efforts and education in tribal nations.