June 1, 2020

Hunger and food insecurity is no stranger for Native Americans, who collectively make up self-governing communities throughout the United States known as Indian Country. Community food deficits are a pervasive fact of life, persisting for centuries for American’s first citizens. Traumatic events like pandemics amplify these circumstances. As COVID-19 numbers rise, so do the challenges and impacts on Native peoples’ health and access to food. In order to address the escalating health crisis caused by COVID-19, Tribal governments are justifiably closing their borders and businesses. Suppressing exposure to the pandemic is a solid, rational and critical step that Tribal governments must take to protect their citizens.

In the early days of COVID-19, my office began receiving an avalanche of calls from the advocates we work alongside in Indian Country. Fears were running high as disruptions were exhibited in the food supply chain, paralleled by the surging numbers of COVID cases. Then came orders to shelter in place.

So what if staying at home to stay safe means that you starve? This is the reality for most of Indian Country, where the nearest grocery store is up to two hours or more away. After panic buying, staples like bread, meat, eggs and fresh produce were and, in some cases, still are absent from grocery store shelves. Can you imagine making a two-hour drive to find bare shelves? Then can you imagine making the drive home empty handed and doing it again the next day?

Federal feeding programs are a fixture of Tribal communities due to the remoteness of our people and our lands. It is also due to minimal employment opportunities, anemic transportation systems and in many cases the total absence of electricity and running water in tribal homes. Many residents of these households were and still are experiencing being laid off from the most viable job in their areas as Tribal governments made the difficult decision to close their economic engines as well as their community services and ceremonies. It is true that in many cases Tribes are the largest employers of their localities and carry responsibilities for the upkeep of crucial infrastructure utilized by all citizens.

From the outset of this pandemic, federal feeding programs experienced a swell of new participants. These spiking numbers should be expected in times like these.  For Indian Country, COVID-19 also illuminated gaps in federal feeding systems like the Emergency Food Assistance Program which does not actually list Tribal governments as eligible administrators of the program or even as recipients of the foods in the program, unless they are approved by state governments. Meanwhile, in another part of USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) they are currently working with over 276 tribal governments to administer and manage the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). How could an oversight like this actually happen and why hasn’t the FNS sought to rectify this situation?  This must be fixed; but it isn’t the only thing that needs to be fixed.

Frankly, I am fed up with repeatedly explaining the state of affairs in Indian Country and clarifying to people that Tribal governments have control and jurisdiction legally over the lands and places they reside in and duties to care for the people residing there. We should never – ever – be required to beg a state government for food donations. Our relationships are grounded in the Tribal-federal government relationship.  To be clear, Indian Country does not need a hand-out, we need a hand up. And the reason we are relentlessly aspiring for this is due to the reality that we are never invited to sit at the decision-making table, and if or when we finally are – we are rarely actually heard.

As COVID-19 began its persistent disruptions, Indian Country did what our ancestors have always done. We immediately began turning to the future to plant seeds – yes, literal seeds – to make sure we would be able to “grow our way out of this” and provide sustenance to our people. We organized food purchases for our citizens, we gathered donations from the goodwill of others (not our federal government), heck even Ireland sent help to Indian Country, and we made sure our most vulnerable community members were taken care of first. And we still are.

From every corner of Indian Country examples and acts of cohesiveness, collective action and powerful prayer continues to emerge. These acts inspire us and will carry us forward in new and exciting ways, despite the intentional omissions from the US emergency response systems who have fiduciary obligations to us. We understand that the time has to be now to gather our collective strength and build a cohesive social response to ensure that this never happens again. This will require putting Tribal governments in the driver’s seat of feeding our people because we have the knowledge, wisdom, assets and resources to do so. Never again should Tribal governments or their citizens – whose lives and histories on these lands predates anyone else’s – be required to be the last in line to get food to our people. We are not extinct, unable, or unwilling even if we are seemingly invisible. We are still here, and still making contributions to this country since before it was a country, and we always will.