Find our tracker, COVID-19 coverage, opinion pieces, list of events cancelled or postponed and more at the Indian Country Today’s COVID-19 Syllabus.
Find our tracker, COVID-19 coverage, opinion pieces, list of events cancelled or postponed and more at the Indian Country Today’s COVID-19 Syllabus.
Indian Country Today
Monday the Cherokee Nation reported the death of its self-governance director, the first COVID-19-related death within the tribe’s health system.
Karen Ketcher, Cherokee, died Monday at age 70, according to the tribe. She previously worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The nation said Ketcher died of COVID-19 complications.
“Our hearts are heavy today as we mourn the passing of our dear friend, Karen,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said on Facebook. “This is a shock, both to the many loved ones Karen leaves behind, and to the Cherokee Nation as a whole. As Cherokees, we all feel the weight of her loss, which is tragic and too soon.”
This is the tribe’s second death: A 55-year-old man died in mid-March outside of the Cherokee Nation’s health system.
The tribe announced an increase of 13 cases today Monday, bringing the total to 24 cases and two deaths. The tribe’s health system also has 11 ventilators.
The Choctaw Nation also has seen cases increases, with Chief Gary Batton announcing three new ones Monday. That brings the tribe’s total to 18 cases and 1 death.
The tribal nation had its first case March 26. The Choctaw Nation Health Service Authority is waiting for 49 test results, while 49 tests have come back negative.
Meanwhile, the Muckleshoot Tribe in Washington state had two cases as of April 2. Both will be in isolation for 14 days, and contact tracing has been done on both people, says the tribe.
Contact tracing is when health officials interview the infected about where they’ve been and who they may have had contact with. Dean Seneca, CEO of Seneca Scientific Solutions Plus, said during an interview on Indian Country Today’s newscast, that this method was effective when he was on the frontlines of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa
In the Southwest, the Navajo Nation continues to see a jump in cases. On Monday, it had 30 new cases. This gives the tribal nation a total of 384 cases.
Nationwide, there are now 539 cases and 24 deaths in the Indian health system.
In New Mexico, San Felipe Pueblo last week became one of the latest pueblos to issue a strict stay-at-home order for its community.
Thirty-two miles away is Zia Pueblo. Its leadership adopted similar guidelines in a weekend memo.
Zia Pueblo leadership confirmed Sunday that their pueblo had 11 confirmed cases.
In addition to a stay-at-home order, the pueblo has enacted a curfew that will remain in effect until further notice, according to its memo. Only essential works and those with medical appointments or emergencies can leave the pueblo, it says.
Zia Pueblo also says only two people per household can be designated to go shopping, and they cannot be elders or children. Tribal members can shop only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
“We are a small, close-knit community with strong family connections. If the “Stay at Home” Order is not taken seriously or ignored, even by one person, more harm will be inflicted upon Zia Members,” the memo reads. “Please, our Zia People, abide by the ‘Stay at Home’ Order. Practice all social distancing guidelines and frequently follow through with personal hygiene recommendations set forth by Public Health experts.”
Joining other pueblos, Zia Pueblo has cancelled all Easter activities, including church services, dances and Easter egg hunts.
This weekend will look drastically different for residents of the Navajo Nation.
The Navajo Department of Health has issued an emergency order implementing a curfew beginning at 8 p.m. Friday and ending at 5 a.m. Monday. Those who do not comply will be given a citation and fined, officials say.
“We are seeing way too many people contract the virus, and we need to step up measures to begin to reduce the numbers,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a press release. “Our health care system cannot manage the growing numbers of patients and those who need to be admitted. We continue to receive reports of people on the road and traveling with families to nearby border towns.”
The weekend curfew does not apply to essential employees. These employees, however, are required to show proof of identification from their employer on an official letterhead to be exempt from being penalized.
Seneca Nation President Rickey Armstrong, Sr. issued the following statement in opposition to the executive order outlined by Governor Andrew Cuomo for taking vital resources and medical equipment away from Upstate New York hospitals for use downstate. A press release said:
“The Governor’s order flies in the face of the life-saving work our hospitals, doctors, nurses and first responders are risking their own health to perform every day. By preparing to send the National Guard to the region to demand our healthcare community relinquish ventilators and equipment, the Governor is signaling his willingness to sacrifice the lives and safety of our family and neighbors. He is creating a dangerous ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dynamic, and he is making his choice crystal clear.”
Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Dalton Walker and Aliyah Chavez contributed to this report. The Associated Press also contributed.
I hope this email finds you safe and well. As you have likely heard, the federal government recently passed a $2 trillion emergency relief package to aid Americans during the COVID-19 crisis. We’re so grateful to those of you who sent 13,000 emails to Congress demanding the CARES Act not bail out fossil fuel companies. It worked: the bill was revised — you and others stopped a $3 billion giveaway to oil companies! Other victories in the Act include expanded protections for unemployed workers, coverage for COVID-19 testing, and $64 million in aid to Indian Country. Even under quarantine, you are helping make a difference where it counts.
Despite those wins, Trump announced in a signing statement that he intends to ignore key congressional oversight provisions, leaving open the possibility that he will still earmark billions of dollars for the fossil fuel industry. Thankfully, such signing statements do not carry the force of law. As my comrade Chase Iron Eyes describes in our new video, Congress can take legal action. Click here to tell the House of Representatives to file a lawsuit against the executive branch and stop Trump from following through on his promise to bail out Big Oil.
In the midst of massive shelter-in-place orders, we’re seeing how quickly nature can start to rebound — bluer skies, cleaner water ways, thriving wildlife. Mother Earth is clearly sending us a message: we can’t go back to business-as-usual. The truth is, COVID-19 isn’t the primary reason the oil industry is now suffering. U.S. fracking simply can’t compete with cheap Saudi Oil and renewables. We must let the market dictate a shift to green alternatives before it’s too late, rather than continuing to subsidize dirty energy. Taking Trump’s Big Oil addiction to court can be an important step in severing our addiction to fossil fuels.
In more localized news, my part of Indian Country is beginning to feel the impacts of the pandemic, with confirmed cases near both Standing Rock and Yankton. Though we have no reported cases yet on Pine Ridge or Cheyenne River, limited testing means we can’t be sure the virus isn’t among us. We know that COVID-19 could disproportionately impact Native communities, and we’re remaining vigilant during these uncertain times. We organizers are sounding out tribal leaders (from a safe distance) on how LPLP can support public health in the days to come. Please stay tuned for ways you can assist our efforts on the reservations.
Thank you for your support. Wishing you and your family safety and health,
Madonna Thunder Hawk
Cheyenne River Organizer
The Lakota People’s Law Project
P.S. We must prioritize the health of people and planet during a pandemic — not the extractive industry that routinely jeopardizes both. I ask you to use your voice again to engage your reps and the courts. Together, let’s stop Trump’s Big Oil bailout.
First Nations are being pressured by the federal government to hold elections in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to legal experts and band officials.
One Saskatchewan First Nation is going ahead with a vote on Friday despite pleas from its own emergency management team to postpone for 30 days.
“They’re forcing First Nations into a really awful dilemma. This is a huge health risk,” said lawyer Maggie Wente, whose Ontario firm works with Indigenous communities across Canada.
A number of First Nations across the country are scheduled to go ahead with their elections in the coming weeks. Others, such as the Red Pheasant Cree Nation, already have. A few others, such as the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, are postponing.
In an internal email obtained by CBC News, Yves Denoncourt, acting director in the federal government’s Indigenous Governance Operations Directorate, said First Nations have the right to postpone their own elections but they aren’t allowed to extend the terms of the current leaders.
“At the end of the mandate, a First Nation will find itself dealing with a governance gap,” Denoncourt wrote in the email sent to more than two dozen government staff last week.
Denoncourt outlines steps for First Nations to decrease the risk of spreading COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus: Election officials should supply 50 pens and pencils, and clean them after each use; voters should be encouraged to bring their own pens and pencils; and voting tables and screens should be cleaned “every 5-10 voters.”
Up to 50 people will be allowed into each polling station, although Denoncourt noted any stricter provincial orders would take priority. In Saskatchewan, for example, gatherings of more than 10 people were banned as of Thursday.
Wente said many of her First Nation clients are calling her in a panic. They don’t want to put people at risk, especially elders. But they are confused and afraid by the federal rules, she said.
Many wonder if the federal government will refuse to deal with their community in the event of a “governance gap,” and whether that will mean delaying or halting life-saving supplies or economic relief, Wente said.
“I mean, it sounded very threatening,” Wente said. “‘We’re not going to accept your government if you decide to extend your own term and so you should take sanitizer and pencils to the polls,’ which had a real kind of, ‘Let them eat cake,’ attitude, which I found really distasteful.”
Saskatchewan Conservative MP Gary Vidal said the elections go against the advice of medical experts trying to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vidal, whose riding of Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River is home to one of the highest percentages of Indigenous people in Canada, said he has asked Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller to assure First Nations they can postpone these elections without repercussions from the federal government. But Vidal said there’s no indication Miller has done so.
“As a result, First Nations are feeling pressured to go ahead with these potentially dangerous elections,” he said in a written statement Thursday.
Miller was not available for an interview Thursday, according to his office.
First Nations are right to be worried, said University of Saskatchewan law professor Dwight Newman, after CBC News showed him a copy of the email.
“There’s a real problem here. This isn’t the way other levels of government are being dealt with,” said Newman, who is a Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Rights in Constitutional Law.
“This is an awkward and unfair situation where they seem to be under pressure to hold the elections.”
In Saskatchewan, the Red Pheasant Cree Nation went ahead with its vote last week. In videos posted to social media, groups of a dozen people or more sat together on bleachers in the election hall, while volunteers sat shoulder-to-shoulder at tables without gloves or masks.
The Nekaneet First Nation vote took place on Wednesday. An official with Beardy’s and Okemasis’ Cree Nation confirmed their 3,500 members will vote Friday.
The Beardy’s official, who spoke on condition their name was not used, said the band’s emergency management team called for a 30-day delay. But after election officials got legal advice, they decided they had to go ahead.
“All we can do now is recommend how to proceed safely,” the official said.
Wente and Newman said the big problem is the federal Indian Act, which places strict rules on most aspects of First Nations governance, including fixed election terms.
Newman said cabinet could issue an order making exceptions in this case or in the case of all pandemics.
He said federal agencies could also announce they will recognize incumbent chiefs and councils for a fixed period of time. He said it could likely be done in a way that withstands challenges from other candidates.
Vanessa Adams, an official in the office of the Indigenous services minister, said in a written statement that the “health and welfare of Indigenous peoples is our sole focus.”
She also said they’ll “work to ensure there are no gaps in governance during this health crisis.”
But Adams would not say whether the government would reconsider its position on term limits for First Nations chiefs and councils.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread throughout the nation, we’re aware that it could have an outsized impact on Indian Country. Relief programs may not provide needed tests and medical supplies for us — or anyone — on an appropriate scale. Please know we are monitoring this, and as my colleague Chase Iron Eyes mentioned a few days ago, we’ll keep you updated on developments. May we all stay safe and healthy.
In the meantime, I write with some wonderful news. Just yesterday, Standing Rock won a big victory in the ongoing legal battle against the Dakota Access pipeline when a federal judge granted the tribe’s request to strike down DAPL’s federal permits!
Thank you for all you have done to aid our struggle! Today I ask that you take a few moments to watch our video about the win in court and send a note of solidarity to Standing Rock. I will deliver your messages to the tribal chairman and tribal council. This is a big moment!
The judge ruled that Trump’s Army Corps of Engineers must complete a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) — the much more comprehensive review we’ve all been demanding since the beginning of this movement (and that President Obama required, only to be reversed by Trump). The Corps fell short in three specific ways, according to the judge.
First, the Corps failed to respond adequately to claims by the tribe’s experts that DAPL’s leak detection system is wholly inadequate. Second, the company’s dreadful history of oil spills wasn’t properly addressed. Finally, the oil company failed to account for the adverse repercussions a “worst case discharge” might have on our treaty rights — our ability to hunt, fish, and perform traditional religious ceremonies near Lake Oahe, which the pipeline crosses under.
I was asked by the tribal chairman to represent Standing Rock’s interests at the hearing in Washington, D.C., but I couldn’t go because of Coronavirus travel restrictions. I’m gratified that, despite our troubles, we have been victorious, at least for now.
The logic of the judge’s ruling suggests the pipeline should not remain operational without a federal permit. The ruling actually references both the Titanic and Chernobyl concerning the possibility of human error, and I’m hopeful shutting down the flow will be the judge’s next step. He has now requested legal briefs on that issue.
Please stay tuned, as we hope to share more good news soon. In the meantime, stay safe and please listen to the medical professionals with knowledge about the requirements of this pandemic. We’re all in this together.
Wopila tanka — as always, we’re so grateful to you for standing with Standing Rock and Mother Earth.
Standing Rock Organizer
The Lakota People’s Law Project
Lakota People’s Law Project
547 South 7th Street #149
Bismarck, ND 58504-5859
The Lakota People’s Law Project is part of the Romero Institute, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) law and policy center. All donations are tax-deductible.
All Pueblo Council of Governors
As New Mexico’s COVID-19 cases continue to rise in recent weeks, Pueblo governments have joined nationwide response efforts in coordination with local, state, and federal agencies. Following national trends, Pueblos have engaged in banning forms of travel and have closed all New Mexico tribal gaming facilities and operations. Many have declared states of emergency in preparation for receipt of critical federal funding to address the unprecedented level of need by Pueblo communities responding to the pandemic. Amid response efforts this week, authorities who oversee federally owned lands have temporarily waived entrance fees to lend recreational social distancing spaces for members of the public. The lack of consultation for this directive has caused concern by Pueblo leadership.
“In Cochiti Pueblo, we have seen an overcrowding of recreationalists from outside our communities coming here and to surrounding areas to hike, and while we would otherwise welcome visitors to our lands, we are worried for the more vulnerable demographics of our community and the lack of resources to address this national health emergency. Our elders, who are invaluable traditional knowledge keepers and beloved members of our community, are particularly susceptible to this virus and we must fulfill our responsibility to ensure their safety and well-being.”
– Governor Charles Naranjo, Cochiti Pueblo
“As the numbers climb, the Pueblo of Jemez has been closed to non-tribal members. We are taking all the necessary preventative measures to ensure the health of our community during this critical time and encourage members of the public to please stay home. We understand many public places have closed, and staying home for long periods can be challenging, especially for the outdoor enthusiasts, but we respectfully request members of the public to be considerate of our efforts and wishes.”
– Governor David M. Toledo, Jemez Pueblo
In a recent survey disseminated by the All Pueblo Council of Governors, Pueblos have reported among their top concerns, lack of COVID-19 testing and sanitation supplies, as well as elderly care and support services. Many Pueblos have also reported limiting entrance to their Pueblos and communities to tribal members only, but many others have indicated they are not able to do so due to the number of access points and capacity of staff directed to other essential response efforts.
“We as Pueblo Nations continue working around the clock advocating for our communities’ needs and resources to a host of state and governmental agencies and Congress. However, the immense scale of this pandemic has created new challenges in the delivery and expansion of preparedness resources available to our communities. The relationships we build and respect with one another at all levels—from those at the national level to the very local community level—will become even more important as we collectively address this emergency. We firmly and respectfully ask members of the public to support our Pueblo Nations in caring for the lands and livelihood of all generations of our communities by respecting our request for members of the public to pause trips to or near Pueblo communities and neighboring recreational sites including, but not limited to, those at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument and Cochiti Lake, Jemez Historic Site, Red Rocks and Hot Springs and Puye Cliff Dwellings.”
– Chairman J. Michael Chavarria, All Pueblo Council of Governors
Members of the public who have questions or would like information on “know before you go” are welcome to contact the All Pueblo Council of Governors at: APCG@indianpueblo.org.
“This is what the tribe has been fighting for many months. Their fearless organizing continues to change the game.”
A federal judge handed down a major victory for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe of North Dakota on Wednesday, ruling that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Environmental Policy Act by approving federal permits for the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The USACE must complete a full environmental impact study of the pipeline, including full consideration of concerns presented by the Standing Rock Tribe, the judge ruled. The tribe has asked the court to ultimately shut the pipeline down.
The court chastised the USACE for moving ahead with affirming the permits in 2016 and allowing the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) crossing the Missouri River after President Donald Trump assumed office in 2017, without considering the expert analysis put forward by the tribe.
“After years of commitment to defending our water and earth, we welcome this news of a significant legal win. It’s humbling to see how actions we took four years ago to defend our ancestral homeland continue to inspire national conversations about how our choices ultimately affect this planet.”
—Mike Faith, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
The Standing Rock Sioux had raised concerns regarding the likelihood and danger of potential oil spills, DAPL’s leak-detection system, and the safety record of Sunoco Logistics, the company behind the pipeline. Sunoco “has experienced 276 incidents resulting in over $53 million in property damage from 2006 to 2016” and has “one of the lowest performing safety records of any operator in the industry,” the tribe’s experts found.
The federal ruling “validates everything the Tribe has been saying all along about the risk of oil spills to the people of Standing Rock,” said Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman in a statement. “The Obama administration had it right when it moved to deny the permits in 2016, and this is the second time the court has ruled that the government ran afoul of environmental laws when it permitted this pipeline. We will continue to see this through until DAPL has finally been shut down.”
DAPL and the fight against the pipeline was the subject of international attention in 2016 when thousands of water defenders gathered at camps in North Dakota, facing a highly militarized police force armed with tanks, riot gear, rubber bullets, and other weapons.
Since Trump reversed former President Barack Obama’s December 2016 order denying the permits and allowed the construction to be completed in June 2017, the tribe has challenged the permits and demanded the USACE conduct a full environmental analysis.
Wednesday’s ruling represented a “huge victory” for the tribe, 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben tweeted.
“Such thanks to all who fight!” he wrote.
“After years of commitment to defending our water and earth, we welcome this news of a significant legal win,” said Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Mike Faith. “It’s humbling to see how actions we took four years ago to defend our ancestral homeland continue to inspire national conversations about how our choices ultimately affect this planet. Perhaps in the wake of this court ruling the federal government will begin to catch on, too, starting by actually listening to us when we voice our concerns.”
Others on social media celebrated the victory and applauded the “tireless efforts” of the campaigners, with the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America calling the decision the “absolute best possible outcome” of the court battle.
“This is why we never stop fighting,” Earthjustice president Abbie Dillen said.
First and foremost, I hope that you are staying safe and healthy. At this critical moment for our shared society, it’s more important than ever that we look out for one another — even as we are asked to keep our distance. Right now, the Lakota People’s Law Project has staff stationed at Standing Rock, Pine Ridge, and Cheyenne River. We are talking to tribal leaders about ways we can support them in essential work, even while they create emergency plans to respond to the spread of COVID-19. We will keep you updated.
Meanwhile, I write to share with you today about an inspirational partnership that has yielded three wonderful outcomes at Pine Ridge: four college scholarships for Native American girls, the planting of at least 7,000 trees on the reservation, and a new way to support Native artisans.
For some time now, the Lakota People’s Law Project has enjoyed dedicated support from the good people at Nomadics Tipi Makers. Like LPLP, Jeb and Nicole, who run the company, are always looking for ways to best support Native communities. As time has passed, we have deepened our connection with them and shared ideas.
As part of that, we’ve helped network them with others in the community. One such connection is with Henry Red Cloud — who, like our own Phyllis Young, is a MIT Solve Laureate. He is a visionary environmental leader at Pine Ridge who installs solar around the reservation and plants trees to restore sacred sites and provide increased access to fresh fruit for our people. With his company, Red Cloud Renewable, Henry has facilitated a (literally) fruitful partnership by agreeing to work with Nomadics to plant one tree for every tipi pole the company sells — with all expenses for the project covered by Nomadics.
Jeb and Nicole’s commitment to providing sustained support to Native people also includes the establishment of a $20,000 per year scholarship fund — $5,000 each for four young Native American women to attend Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The first round of scholarship money is already headed to young women at Pine Ridge.
Finally, Jeb and Nicole have also found a great way to provide resources to Native artists at Pine Ridge by collaborating with them to paint tipi covers with personal, authentic artwork. Nomadics will send tipi covers to the artists and will pay forward to the reservation 100 percent of the artwork price as charged to individual customers.
These measures to bring support and health to Pine Ridge take on extra meaning at a time like the present. As we all hunker down for what looks to be a challenging road ahead, know that your support of the Lakota People’s Law Project has helped facilitate some extremely positive connections that will matter greatly, both right now for local artists and into the future for our young people and our reservation as a whole.
Wopila — Thank you, as always, and please stay safe and well!
Chase Iron Eyes
The Lakota People’s Law Project
The Associated Press
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Montana regulators have reached a deal allowing the state to enforce environmental laws at a large coal mine bought by a Navajo-owned company, officials said Thursday.
For months, executives from the Navajo Transitional Energy Company and state officials had been unable to resolve demands the company waive its immunity as a tribal entity from future lawsuits.
The mine shut down briefly in October when the dispute over sovereignty first emerged. Thursday’s agreement came a day before a temporary waiver agreement was set to expire.
The Navajo company bought the 275-worker Spring Creek strip mine along the Wyoming border and two mines in Wyoming last year from bankrupt Cloud Peak Energy.