Tribes welcome injection of infrastructure bill
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. Tribes have welcomed the injection of money into a massive infrastructure bill to expand broadband coverage, repair roads and meet water and sanitation needs, but say real change will only come through sustainable investment.
President Joe Biden signed a $1.2 trillion deal earlier this week that includes about $11 billion in benefits for the Indian country, according to the US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. About a third of that amount, $3.5 billion, will go to the Indian Health Service, the federal agency tasked with providing health care to more than two million Native Americans and Alaska Natives.
Funding is sufficient to address more than 1,560 projects on the agency’s list of water and sanitation deficiencies in 12 regions, estimated to cost approximately $2.6 billion. Projects in Alaska and the southwestern region that cover the Navajo Nation—where many tribesmen live without running water and indoor plumbing—collectively have the biggest price tags.
“In these tribal communities and many others, sewage and clean water systems would never be built because the annual appropriations were not enough to cover all the deficiencies,” India’s National Health Board said on Wednesday.
Indian Health Service spokeswoman Jennifer Bushek said the agency will consult with tribes soon to determine how to allocate the funding.
Another $2.5 billion will be allocated to meet the tribal water rights settlements that have already been approved. The Ministry of Interior did not specify the agreements defining the rights of the tribes to the listed waters. But leaders of the Navajo tribe, which stretches into parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, and the White Mountain Apache tribe in eastern Arizona said they expect to benefit from the funding.
Heather Tanana, a Navajo and adjunct professor of law at the University of Utah, is part of a group that released a roadmap Tuesday on how the federal government can move forward with funding effectively. It includes coordination between federal agencies, working with tribes and through an existing tribal task force.
Officials in the Biden administration repeatedly referred to the “whole government” approach this week during the White House Tribal Nations Summit in announcing interagency agreements on tribal treaty rights and sacred sites.
Tanana, head of research at the Tribal Clean Water Initiative, said goals and accountability should also be part of the equation, along with building the ability of tribes to operate their water and sanitation systems on their own. A group of tribal members, water experts, and nonprofits pushes for access to clean water for tribes in the Colorado River Basin and beyond.
“The whole government shouldn’t be a catchy phrase,” Tanana said. “It’s so important to get the money that Congress just appropriated on the ground and in actual projects.”
The Indian National Health Board said construction and improvement to water and sanitation systems would have a ripple effect in the tribal communities and urban areas where most Native Americans live, improving health disparities and promoting economic development. The group also said the momentum should continue as Congress fully fund health care facilities that serve indigenous people as part of the federal government’s commitment to federally recognized tribes.
“This is the first step for many to reduce this shameful inequality and help ensure that tribal communities have access to safe, clean water,” said Colorado US Senator Michael Bennett, who co-sponsored a separate bill to improve India’s water and sanitation systems.
US Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said the infrastructure funding is not irrational but long overdue.
“It’s been decades talking about getting rid of the bucket of honey and introducing clean drinking water into communities and sewage systems,” she said, referring to the lined buckets used to collect human waste in many isolated Alaskan Native villages that lack indoor plumbing.
“A flush toilet is not much to ask for in this day and age,” Murkowski said.
Tribal leaders told the Biden administration during the virtual summit that they value the money in the infrastructure bill but noted some potential obstacles, including those facing tribes that do not have the resources to compete for grants or match funding.
“Why don’t the tribes only receive funding?” said Janet Davis, president of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in Nevada. “Why do we have to write grants so we can use them, so we can use them for our communities to be safe?”
Navajo President Jonathan Nez has suggested relaxing or updating federal policies and regulations so that projects are not disrupted. He noted the need for environmental permits from two different federal agencies when constructing a US Bureau of Indian Affairs road or bridge on the reserve.
“Failure to remove some of the burdens that prevent infrastructure investment will mean that all of our efforts to help pass the infrastructure bill may not lead to the progress we want for our people,” Nez said. “What is the point of giving us money if regulations make it nearly impossible to spend it?”
Lasting differences will come only through continued investments to offset decades of underfunding and neglect, White Mountain President Apache Gwendena Lee-Gatewood said.
“We hope this administration will continue to focus on urgent needs and keep its feet on gas in the coming budget years,” she said during the two-day summit that concluded on Tuesday.
Biden administration officials said they would work to address the tribes’ concerns.
This story was contributed by Associated Press writer Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska. Fonseca is a member of the Associated Press’s Race and Ethnicity Team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/FonsecaAP.
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