Marcus Denetdale, program manager for ASU’s Construction in Indian Country, worked together with Willmeng to host a virtual town hall on June 19th, giving updates on how COVID-19 has impacted Native American communities in Arizona. The goal of the town hall and subsequent panel discussion was to bring together tribal and business leaders to discuss the economic outlook and address the current situation in Indian Country as they continue to fight COVID-19.
The panel also featured Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation; Traci Morris, executive director of ASU’s American Indian Policy Institute; Brian Howard, research and policy analyst, American Indian Policy Institute; James Murphy, chief executive officer, Willmeng Construction; Larry Wright Jr., tribal chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska; and Martin Harvier, president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
During the virtual town hall, the panel discussed how COVID-19 has exacerbated infrastructure vulnerabilities in Indian Country and has brought attention to myriad issues that advocacy hasn’t been able to. Even though the Navajo Nation’s highest per capita coronavirus infection rate has been getting the lion’s share of attention in the media, the lack of infrastructure — especially broadband — impacts civic engagement, education, energy and healthcare delivery on U.S. reservations affected by the pandemic.
“The internet is the underpinning of our lives,” Traci Morris said. “Everything depends on it, and we’re very far behind in Indian Country. We need broadband for everything from Telehealth to education to energy management. The digital divide is real, and there are multiple divides.” To illustrate her point, Morris said last year the American Indian Policy Institute released a research paper titled “Tribal Technology Assessment: The State of Internet Service on Tribal Lands.” Morris co-wrote the paper, which showed that many Native Americans on reservations do not have equal access to the internet and that most are using smartphones to go online at slower speed.
Morris said some of the major findings in the paper include:
- 18% of tribal reservation residents have no access to internet at home.
- 33% are relying on internet from a smartphone.
- 31% of tribal reservation residents who do have internet said the service was spotty.
Larry Wright Jr., tribal chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska said in addition to internet connectivity, infrastructure issues such as the lack of funding for road maintenance and health care facilities have created major headaches for his tribe and others in the Great Plains. “A lot of our tribal nations are spread out over large areas, and in some cases, it’s two to three hours of drive time to get to a health care facility,” said Wright, whose tribal area covers 15 counties in Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota. “That gets even more compounded when roads and bridges are closed because of flooding from the past few years, making travel even more difficult.”
Martin Harvier, president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community said because many of his community are susceptible to diabetes and other underlying health issues, he has stressed taking extreme precautions. He added that his tribe is in an urban setting and borders cities such Scottsdale, Tempe and Mesa. In addition, the tribe has had to shut down its two casinos, which employs hundreds of community members, Harvier said. “Without any income being generated and coming in, a lot of tribes are looking at the CARES Act to fill some of those gaps to make sure everything is moving forward,” Harvier said. “But now we’re starting to see all the strings that are tied to it. There’s some confusion how we can actually use those funds.”
Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation said most construction and infrastructure projects on the Navajo Nation have been delayed, businesses have been forced to close and tourism has been completely halted due to the pandemic. “There is not even a gas pump that is open (during the curfew hours),” Nez said. “We’re losing a lot of revenue, but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do to protect your citizens.” The pandemic has underscored the need for Native doctors, nurses, police officers and law enforcement, which is why he said he has set aside $50 million in scholarships for professional development and building capacity.
Construction in Indian Country is an ASU-based committee created with guidance from the adviser to the Office of the President of ASU for American Indian affairs and individuals from Arizona and New Mexico Indian tribes. ASU’s role is not only to support tribal communities, but to be partners in creating the pipeline of youth going into a range of professions.
To read the full article, click here.
To watch the Virtual Town Hall, click here.