WORDS BY Yessenia Funes
President Joe Biden’s team is working behind the scenes to make his $3 trillion infrastructure package a reality. The news from the New York Times comes two weeks after Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law. It’s clear that the president is wasting no time to help the American economy and its people recover and rebuild from the pandemic that’s killed more than 2 million people worldwide.
In the U.S., Native Americans are 2.4 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. And it appears the federal government is finally taking the effort to listen to their needs during this crisis. The American Rescue Plan is directing the largest investment to tribal communities in U.S. history: more than $31 billion. The funds should be released no later than May 10, per the bill’s text, but tribal advocates are already imagining all the ways this money could help empower Indigenous communities in their transition toward a green, resilient future. If the Biden administration is serious about this upcoming infrastructure package, then tribal nations may be receiving even more funds pretty soon.
All this money can help go toward funding clean energy development, water infrastructure, internet access, language preservation, and more. Indigenous peoples need an all-of-the-above approach to combat the pandemic’s impact on their communities, as well as to protect their homelands from the climate crisis. The recent appointment of Sec. Deb Haaland to the Interior Department only bolsters what’s possible.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re looking at the opportunities that lie ahead for Indian Country. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. This historic funding can mean a lot to tribal nations that have faced an especially precarious economic situation due to the coronavirus. More importantly, it offers them the opportunity to become leaders in the just transition away from fossil fuels.
Nicolette Cooley tries to go outside every morning to pray. She speaks to whatever animals may be listening nearby. Some mornings, it’s a skunk scurrying along. Other mornings, a coyote lurking in the bush. Cooley, a Diné woman and co-manager of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals’ Tribal Climate Change Program, is a fluent speaker of her Native Diné tongue. Her people’s language has helped her connect to her environment “in a way that’s more intimate,” she says. “I feel more connected to everything around me.”
The American Rescue Plan allocates $20 million specifically toward language preservation, which the pandemic has threatened. Tribal elders, often the ones best equipped to share knowledge and language, have been especially vulnerable to COVID-19. They’re the keepers of ancestral knowledge—knowledge that’s essential to helping us address the climate crisis. Preserving Indigenous languages is a key step in responding to the ecological crises we face.
“We have lost so many elders who could’ve lived 10, 20, 30 years longer,” Cooley says, growing emotional. “And with them, they took a piece of our history. They take a wealth of knowledge that could’ve been passed on to other generations, and they were meant to teach us more. I get so sad thinking about what they took with them and didn’t leave behind.”
Cooley’s is a similar story many Indigenous peoples are experiencing. Wayne Ducheneaux, the executive director of the Native Governance Center, has seen a similar unfolding on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota. This new recovery package offers some support to build out programs to help retain Native languages and grow the number of speakers. It also allocates $600 million for critical economic and infrastructure investments, allowing much-needed resources to flow to ongoing clean energy and climate adaptation projects. Cooley called the passage of this act “huge.” Ducheneaux called it “historic.”
“Those dollars mean we finally are getting some respect as a sovereign entity,” Cooley says. “It means the Biden administration really recognizes tribal and Indigenous communities are equitable partners or should be equitable partners in the care of their people, their communities, and the environment.”
Tribal nations have been facing significant economic hardship throughout the pandemic. This is, in large part, due to the very nature of how tribal sovereign nations are structured. Unlike state governments, tribal governments don’t receive any income or property taxes, explains James Klas, a founder and principal of KlasRobinson Q.E.D., an independent firm that provides economic consulting services to tribal communities. Tribal governments build revenue from the businesses they create, such as casinos. When all of that shut down during the pandemic, all their sources of revenue ceased.
“Any sector that the tribes were involved in took a hit,” Klas says. “So all that, then, has a direct impact on their ability to fund their government because all those profits are no longer flowing in. At the same time, the tribes are still trying to take care of their own people, and they’re trying to take care of their employees.”
So the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act came as such when it was passed under President Donald Trump last year. However, that law came with much heavier restrictions as to how tribal governments could spend the $8 billion allocated to them. And it was swiftly followed by lawsuits—including one from the Shawnee Tribe in Oklahoma on inaccurate population data, which influenced the amount tribes received, and another one from multiple tribes arguing against the distribution of funds to Alaska Native Corporations, which are not governmental entities. The American Rescue Plan’s flexibility is a welcome change from the CARES Act.
“The CARES Act funding was about response,” says Ducheneaux of the Native Governance Center. “This is about recovery, the rescue portion of it. I think that’s what the program really lays out: How can we help recover now that we’ve responded?”
“There are lessons in a word or a group of words in Indigenous language that will tell you the importance of this plant or this river, that you can’t properly articulate in English.”
That doesn’t mean the American Rescue Plan is perfect. It still threatens tribes with the recoupment of funds if they are misused. The language here is important, says Eric Henson, a research fellow at the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, because many tribal leaders may perceive those words as a lack of trust. And, ultimately, that language fails to cement the sovereignty of tribal nations to govern themselves.
“[The law] still doesn’t say, We accept that you, tribal governments, best understand what your needs are. We also explicitly recognize that those needs have evolved over time since the pandemic started and are likely to continue to evolve,” Henson says. “The language could’ve leaned more heavily toward very great flexibility.”
Regardless of the plan’s shortcomings, the billions of dollars set to flow into Indian Country can help put into motion a number of projects. Access to water infrastructure and internet connectivity are at the top of that list, especially as the pandemic rages on. Consistently—or maniacally, really—washing our hands was among the first changes to rock our society. That hasn’t been so simple for many Indigenous families, especially those in the Navajo Nation where many households lack water infrastructure and must haul in water. That’s where attention is most urgently needed on the Navajo Nation, says Nicole Horseherder, the executive director of Tó Nizhóní Áni, a Diné organization focused on water rights.
“The rest of the nation does not understand when we say things like that, but the rest of the nation does not understand that water being piped out into your kitchen sink doesn’t exist for the Navajo Nation,” Horseherder says.
Preparing to build such critical infrastructure becomes more likely with these federal dollars. As does internet access, which the pandemic made more urgent, especially for children attending school. These seemingly basic amenities also contribute to a community’s ability to withstand the impacts of climate change. That’s why some tribal nations, such as the Gila River Indian Community and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, have been putting together plans to respond to and adapt to the climate crisis. The billions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan should help them implement some of these plans through economic development pathways.
Clean energy, however, is one of the greatest financial opportunities for tribal nations to explore. This is an area of economic growth Klas flagged for tribes in a report his firm published last month. The Navajo Nation, for instance, has been exploring a partnership with Los Angeles to supply the city clean energy following the closure of the Navajo Generating Station, a huge polluting coal plant. Six tribes in the midwest have come together to form the Oceti Sakowin Power Authority and investigate the potential for a wind project that would generate up to 60 gigawatts of power on tribal lands. The energy and interest are there; they always have been. What tribal leaders have long needed is the cash.
“[This funding] would not be the totality of what’s needed,” Klas says. “But it’s the kick-off, it’s the seed, the thing that can then get things going. When you talk about transforming the energy economy in this country, repatriating manufacturing and other business ventures, you’re talking about a scale that requires massive private investment, as well as public investment. This is like the down payment, the seed money. You’re potentially talking about trillions of dollars of economic activity over time as it builds.”
Weaning the U.S. (and the world) off fossil fuels won’t be an easy feat, but tribal nations can help lead the way in developing a clean future. Their ecological knowledge is an invaluable asset to the global fight to combat the climate crisis. As is language—and all the wisdom and stories embedded in it.
“There is wisdom and understanding in Indigenous language that is not translatable to English,” Ducheneaux says. “There are lessons in a word or a group of words in Indigenous language that will tell you the importance of this plant or this river, that you can’t properly articulate in English. If you lose that language, you lose that lesson. And if you lose that lesson, you lose the opportunity to be able to steward the land in the best way possible.”