On Indigenous Peoples Day, the tribes are calling on Congress to swiftly pass the infrastructure bill – which they say will begin to address historic inequalities in the Indian country.
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Native American tribes are calling on Congress to pass the massive infrastructure bill quickly. Tribal chiefs expect it to include around $ 11 billion for the Indian country, which they hope will begin to address historic inequalities there. On Indigenous Peoples Day, NPR’s Kirk Siegler takes a closer look at what tribes want to do with the money.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: For the Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Chuck Hoskin, the infrastructure bill is not just about helping the Indian country. It is about modernizing rural areas in states like Oklahoma, long neglected by more influential cities.
CHUCK HOSKIN JR: When tribes win in terms of investments, rural America wins.
SIEGLER: The Cherokee Nation is one of the largest employers in Northeast Oklahoma with 11,000 employees, including non-tribal members. And Hoskin says there are a number of road and bridge repair projects the tribe has identified for improvements, and people are ready to get to work. The Cherokees are also keen to add more electric buses to their fleet. In the reserve’s most isolated communities, it’s a lifeline for tribe members to do everything from errands to doctor’s appointments.
HOSKIN: We have to develop in Indian country. We need our economies to move. If the United States is to keep its promise, this is a great way to do it. And really, Congress should take care of that.
SIEGLER: The promise that Chief Hoskin is talking about is about US treaty obligations. The US government pledged to meet basic needs such as health care and education when it forced tribes to settle on reservations and took their ancestral lands. Hoskin says the government has never really honored these treaties.
HOSKIN: People should know that right now in Indian country there are people who are suffering, who are doing without, who are living in situations that most Americans would say is not acceptable. They just don’t know it.
SIEGLER: The infrastructure bill in its current form would put around $ 3.5 billion into what the tribes say is India’s chronically underfunded health service. Over the years, the struggling IHS has also been tasked with maintaining the water sanitation systems. Some tribal lands still do not have potable water. The bill could also boost the development of broadband in the order of around $ 1 billion for tribes. Traci Morris heads the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University.
TRACI MORRIS: These are all drops in the bucket for what we need, but it’s a good down payment.
SIEGLER: Morris, a member of the Chickasaw tribe, says the pandemic has highlighted just how poor the internet is on rural reservations. Residents of more isolated communities could not connect to telehealth or other essential services, which she said has worsened the death toll from the pandemic. Amid the current political stalemate over the bill in Congress, Morris is trying to take a long-term view. She is encouraged to see Indigenous people start to sit at the table, starting with Home Secretary Deb Haaland, the country’s first Indigenous Cabinet official.
MORRIS: Cultural changes are happening. And the laws and things like that hard to keep up, but they just go by little by little because we’re changing as a nation.
SIEGLER: It will take time to eliminate what Morris calls systemic inequalities in the Indian country. And she says the infrastructure bill with more historic funding for tribes is a start.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News.
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