Native American groups capitalize on record donations to confront chronic hardship

Leaders of non-profit organizations serving Native American communities in the US say they have been inundated with unprecedented financial support over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Native Americans are three times as likely to have died from the virus in the US as white Americans, according to the APM Research Lab. America’s largest Indian reservation, the Navajo Nation, has lost 1,471 residents to Covid-19 so far. That figure equates to a staggering death rate of 847 per 100,000 residents – double the rate in the worst-affected US state.

With all this loss and hardship has come media attention and donations from the public, Indigenous organizations say. At least $8.7m poured into GoFundMe campaigns for Native communities between March and October 2020 alone, according to Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP). In June, NAP announced it had also received a “multimillion-dollar” donation from MacKenzie Scott, former wife of the Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos.

“I’m very optimistic,” said Erik Stegman (Carry the Kettle First Nation – Nakoda), chief executive officer of NAP. “There’s this consciousness in the public, across the board, that didn’t used to be there.”

Native Americans constitute 2.9% of the American population according to 2020 census data, but between 2002 and 2016 received just 0.4% of its philanthropic dollars, according to a recent report from NAP. Yet due to the devastating effects of colonization and systemic racism, Indigenous populations in the US continue to experience hunger, homelessness, and lack of access to electricity and running water at rates at least twice as high as Americans as a whole.

“We struggle day to day with an invisibility issue,” Stegman said. “The only thing most people really understand about our communities is what they get from their middle or high school textbook, which is not much, and that’s often a really bad narrative. It tends to dwell on our historical traumas and not our contemporary cultural strengths.”

Advocates like Stegman are harnessing the moment. Indigenous-led organizations across the country have stepped up to try to tackle the crisis – distributing food and water, hand-making masks, delivering essentials like diapers and bleach so people don’t have to leave their homes.

On a cold April morning in Gallup, New Mexico – a small city surrounded by Indian reservations for the Zuni, Navajo, Acoma Pueblo and Laguna Pueblo tribes, 31-year-old Krystal Curley (Navajo Nation) is in the driver’s seat of a 26-foot box truck.

Curley, executive director of Indigenous Lifeways – a Native-led non-profit that is ingrained in the communities it serves – was sitting in the truck filled with blankets and pallets of canned water donated by the US actor Sean Penn’s organization, Core. She left Gallup and in 15 minutes was driving on the Navajo reservation – a sovereign entity larger in area than 10 US states.

Curley said that her organization’s funding had increased eight times during the pandemic, driven by both small PayPal donations from individuals and larger grants from organizations. She and others have been working tirelessly to use those donations to provide pandemic relief and address the reservation’s underlying challenges.

“I just want for my community to have jobs, to have a roof over their head, to have clean water, to have clean energy, to have food at their table,” she said. “For so long, so many generations, we had to live without all of that.”

Curley grew up working alongside her mother, raising awareness of the detrimental effects of uranium mining on Native land. She first got involved in community organizing at 14 and took a break to pursue a traditional career in her 20s. But eventually she realized that over the years, “nothing [had] really changed,” the issues her family dedicated their lives to persisted, so she committed herself to Indigenous Lifeways full-time.

“I couldn’t have picked a better time to move back and quit my job,” she said. “Because I don’t know what would have happened if I wasn’t here. I think about that all the time.”

More than 1 million Americans who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native live on reservations or other tribal lands, according to 2010 US census data. Median income for Native households on reservations is $29,097, less than half the median household income for white Americans, according to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. Native Americans on and off the reservation have the highest poverty rate of any race in the US, at 25.4%. The rate for the United States as a whole is 11.4%.

Poor access to healthcare and healthy food, and the prevalence of close-knit, multigenerational families often living in close quarters made Covid-19 particularly devastating for Indigenous Americans living on reservations.

Advocates stress the idea that not every dollar toward Indigenous aid efforts is equally effective. Curley’s operation is Indigenous-led and plugged into its community. She has been able to use her funding to deliver essential goods – food boxes, water and firewood – directly to families’ homes, as the virus and strict lockdowns have made shopping illegal and unsafe.

“[People] understood that if you just gave us a chance and gave us some money and invested in us, we can do it. Just give it to us and trust us – just do it,” Curley said. “I feel like I’m finally being heard.”

According to a 2018 report from the Indigenous advocacy organization First Nations Development Institute, the majority of grant dollars in support of Native causes go to non-Native-led organizations. These organizations can be well-intentioned, according to the organization’s vice-president, Raymond Foxworth, but out of touch with Native communities’ most pressing needs.

And at their worst, they can “contribute to this sort of paternalistic cycle of community development that just hasn’t worked, not only in the US, it hasn’t worked globally”, Foxworth said.

“Unless we’re putting community and economic development in the hands of Native people, it’s just colonialism by another name.”

Bobby Martin (Navajo Nation) leads the Navajo-Hopi Honor Riders, a group of largely Native motorcyclists who serve as funeral escorts for families of military veterans. He said that before the pandemic, they’d do one or two escorts each week, but during the height of the virus, they averaged up to five a week.

Martin’s younger cousin was Lori Piestewa, who in 2003 became the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving in the US military when she was killed in Iraq. After her death, a prominent mountain in Phoenix, Arizona, was named in her honor. Its previous name contained a racial slur for a Native woman.

“Lori – that was an eye-opener for a lot of people,” Martin said. “She died but she made history.”

Martin said donations for his organization are six times higher since the pandemic began.

“It’s amazing to me to see how the recognition of Native American people is finally happening,” Martin said.

Payton Willeto and Pamela Borja, tribal employees and certified nursing assistants, regularly took a pickup truck from Crownpoint, New Mexico, into the reservation to provide health checks and education. On this day, they were also bringing canned water from Curley’s box truck directly to people’s homes.

Neither Harry Tsosie, 65, nor his wife, Grace Tsosie, 70 – the first people Willeto and Borja check on in the rural Pueblo Pintado area – had wandered much beyond their home since Covid-19 reached the reservation. In the spring, the sun shines and temperature reaches more than 60F (15.5C). But during the winter months, the high desert across the Navajo Nation is bitterly cold.

“We don’t have no heat or no electricity. Nothing,” Grace Tsosie said from her front porch. They also have no running water. Last winter, they relied on Wille to bring them firewood and other essentials. She was their lifeline.

In the 1980s, Grace Tsosie’s grandmother, Mae Chee Castillo, made national headlines when she was invited to President Ronald Reagan’s White House to be honored for an act of heroism. According to multiple media outlets, she went off-script and was reprimanded by the president’s aides.

“Native American elderly … do not have the basic necessities of life such as food, housing, electricity, water and healthcare,” she told him. “I plead with you to recognize the needs of Native American children and elderly.”

On the Navajo Nation today, an estimated 15% of people have no access to running water in their home. On and off the reservation, Native American households are 19 times more likely than white families to lack indoor plumbing. And more than a quarter of the homes on the reservation lack electricity hookups, according to the American Public Power Association.

Only one person Willeto and Borja visited that day, Danny Pinto, had running water. But he had to boil it before drinking because, he said, “it tastes like Clorox.” Pinto’s daughter lived nearby in an approximately 200 sq ft home with her husband and five children, ages three to 16. None of them had gone to school since the pandemic struck, their only education being packets of paper worksheets.

The high school graduation rate for Native Americans in the US is 74%, the lowest of any racial or ethnic group, according to the National School Boards Association. And there is widespread concern this education gap has worsened during the pandemic, as Native American students are less likely to have internet access and less likely to be able to connect with a teacher and do virtual schooling. Native American undergraduate college enrollment declined 13% between spring 2020 and spring 2021 – the largest drop of any racial/ethnic group, according to National Student Clearinghouse.

As of summer 2020, 60% of Navajo Nation residents had no fixed internet access, according to testimony the tribe’s president, Jonathan Nez, gave to the US Congress. That number has improved in recent months, as more than $30m of Covid-19 federal relief funds have gone to increase connectivity on the reservation – but they have a long way to go. Across the US as a whole, 94% of people have a high-speed internet connection.

Grace Tsosie is hopeful that electricity hookups are coming to the area soon, but she said what would help them more than anything are solar panels. Still, despite the challenges, this is the Tsosies’ home – Grace grew up here, her parents and grandparents lived here, and today, her daughter lives just a few hundred feet from her with her own children.

“When you talk to these families out here that live under these conditions they go ‘I’m not poor, I have 10 grandkids,’ or ‘this is where I’ve lived for 10-plus generations,’” Curley said. “There’s a different way that we think of wealth.”

Michelle Bowman, Grace’s 36-year-old daughter, moved from the city to live near her mother 12 years ago. She was recovering from a divorce and said she didn’t want to turn to alcohol. Now she’s remarried and has two children. She loves the country, she said, where there is “no crime, the scenery, the fresh air, the peace”.

Bowman’s husband had been unemployed since the pandemic began, and Bowman herself had been on medical leave, plagued by lingering health problems from a severe case of Covid in May 2020.

“It was like death and back,” she said of her battle with the virus. “There were times I didn’t want to go to sleep because I didn’t know if I was going to wake up.”

Still, through her own life challenges, she has continued her family’s long-running fight to bring utilities to their area.

“My great-grandma, she was a hero. But I just don’t understand why [getting electricity and water] didn’t happen sooner,” Bowman said. “My grandma used to say, we’re just forgotten here.”

But now, she said, things may be changing.

“Through this pandemic and virus I think they think of us. I guess they think about here, because they’re coming around,” she said, referring to officials discussing impending plans to bring electricity and water to the area.

Since the pandemic began, the Navajo Nation has used federal Covid-19 relief funding to connect 721 families on the reservation to the electrical grid, according to the Navajo Times.

Another reason for optimism: the vaccine rollout on the reservation. If the Navajo Nation was a country, it would be among the most vaccinated in the world, with a vaccination rate approaching 80%, according to Nez.

As recently as the 1970s, the federal government-backed Indian Health Services (IHS) launched a campaign to covertly sterilize Native women without their knowledge or consent. The vaccine rollout was spearheaded by this same IHS.

“I’m really surprised with the IHS,” Curley said. “It’s almost like a healing.” The excellent vaccination rate, she said, represents a kind of “turnaround for us trusting science and trusting the healthcare system and trusting government”.

Although much time has passed since the pandemic first spread on the Navajo Nation in the spring of 2020, Curley said donations were still flowing in for her organization and others like it.

Native Americans in Philanthropy is currently working on a project to better quantify the financial support for Native-led causes across the country, and the group may soon be able to determine how much that support has increased during the pandemic.

Recently, Curley has been turning her attention to long-term solutions – like solar panels – while remaining vigilant against the fast-spreading Delta variant. She attributes the increase in financial support to media attention during the pandemic.

Although she said “there’s a fine line of it being poverty porn, just glamorizing our struggles,” she feels “it’s a really incredible thing, how media is able to uplift our own voices, because for so long, we’ve been shut out” – from the public conversation, history books, pop culture.

“We experienced Covid, it is negative, it is horrible,” Curley said. But, she added, “you give us flour, lard and salt, and we make fry bread.”

Curley said she believes mainstream media attention has increased for crises that her family and so many others have been trying to make known for decades: uranium pollution, clean water access, the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

“Continue to look at us,” Curley said. “Don’t forget us. Because we’re still out here struggling.”

With additional reporting and research support from Luke Simmons.

This article was originally published by The New Humanitarian, a news agency specializing in reporting humanitarian crises.

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