Native Americans feel like an afterthought for the government during COVID-19

A protester marches through Boston on Indigenous Peoples Day on Oct. 10, 2020. Photo by Caitlin Faulds/BU News Service

By Gabriela A. Lopez Gomes
BU News Service

Every Fourth of July, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe gathers to celebrate Powwow with members dressing in colorful costumes to dance, eat, and honor their ancestors. But this year, as COVID-19 swept through the nation, the tribe’s 99th Powwow celebration was canceled. 

For Nelson Andrews Jr., emergency management director for the tribe, canceling the ceremony was hard.

“Tribal folks, they are all about gatherings and ceremonies,” he said. “You have to make sure there are rules in place, and you have to be the one that says no and not everybody supports it. Especially elders, who are the most prized people in our community, we had to take necessary precautions to protect them.” 

Some members still gathered, Andrews said, which resulted in several positive cases.

The Wampanoag tribe knows the number of cases in their community based on data from their Indian Health Services Clinic, but since the state has left Native Americans and Alaskan Natives – who live in cities throughout Massachusetts – out of the weekly COVID-19 Public Health Report, these demographics have difficulty knowing how many of their community have contracted the virus. 

Cases, Hospitalizations, and Deaths by Race/Ethnicity in the Weekly COVID-19 Public Health Report by Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Dec. 10, 2020.

Around 37,000 Native Americans and Alaskan Natives live in Massachusetts – comprising around 1% of the state’s population – according to the 2010 Federal census. Other demographics, such as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, are absent from the weekly demographic breakdown by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

“It’s like we are not there anymore,” Andrews said. “We’re just something in the history books, and that’s the way we will get treated from the federal government down.”

The state posts daily data about COVID-19 rates under the Chapter 93 Act, which requires coronavirus data collection to address health disparities for underrepresented populations, said Massachusetts Department of Public Health spokesperson Katheleen Conti in an email. 

However, according to the COVID Racial Data Tracker, this ethnic data is not included in the official weekly COVID-19 pie charts, an omission that prevents vulnerable communities from getting necessary health care from the federal government.

The Department of Public Health has a policy to not report on demographics with populations of less than 50,000 people, said Conti. Alaskan Native, Native American and Asian/Pacific Islander data fall into the “Other/Non-Hispanic” categories in the weekly state report.

“Just because we have a small population size relative to the larger population doesn’t mean that we need less resources,” said Raquel Halsey, executive director of North American Indian Center in Boston. “It means we need those resources even more.” 

Halsey said it “is a shame” Native American people do not appear on the pie chart.

According to a 2020 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, American Indian and Alaskan Native adults are 50% more likely to be overweight than Non-Hispanic whites, leading these communities to suffer from higher rates of heart disease, strokes and diabetes.

The COVID-19 Health Inequalities Task Force in Boston requested reporting on Native American and Alaskan Native populations in Massachusetts, but the process has “certainly been slow,” said Victor A. Lopez-Carmen, a member of the task force.

The task force was initially created in October to look into Latino, Black, and Asian populations in the city, and the Native American Health Organization of Harvard Medical School nominated Lopez-Carmen to represent this demographic.

The lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic isolated indigenous populations in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, where there was an uncontrolled spread of cases and no money from the $8 billion CARES Act – a federal bill providing financial assistance to American workers and businesses – until early May.

A medic with the Massachusetts National Guard takes a nasal swab that will be used to test for COVID-19 with a resident of the Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley, Littleton, Mass. on April 3, 2020. Photo by Kenneth Tucceri/Massachusetts National Guard

In Massachusetts, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe applied for and was awarded a $1.5 million grant by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and $1.2 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to test and aid tribal members who were laid off and homeless.

Federally recognized tribes, such as the Wampanoag, have accessed more financial and healthcare resources than non-federally recognized groups, such as Alaskan Native Corporations, who were not eligible under the CARES Act. Groups who are not federally recognized have struggled to keep members safe due to a lack of resources, Andrews said.

The Wampanoag tribe became a recipient of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s direct assistance grant funding, which enabled them to keep their sovereignty. 

“For Native American tribes, you’re lucky if you have a person that’s in place that can even do this type of position, to get you ready with all the things that FEMA requires,” Andrews said. 

But, they had to compile necessary documentation for the grant, requiring the work of emergency administrative staff, which not all tribes have. Because of this, many tribes become sub-recipients – a non-federal entity that is included under the state’s major disaster declaration – and give up their sovereignty, said Andrews

“We basically have a straight streamline directly to the federal government instead of … going under the state to go to the federal government,” Andrews said. “By doing that we kept our sovereignty. Because of all the requirements, documentation and everything that feeds into this, there’s so much red tape. That’s why most folks are like, well, we don’t have the staff, the manpower, or anything to even go that route – it’s easier to go to the state.” 

Melissa Harding Ferretti, president of the non-federal Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe in Plymouth, declined to give an interview.

Since the Wampanoag tribe’s economic sustainability comes primarily from federal grants, said Andrews, there’s no pressure on their businesses, such as the oyster farms, to support the tribe. Andrews said he will take every precaution necessary and tackle the reopening phase step by step.

“With our slow approach to get everything set up so that everyone is as safe as possible,” he said. “I hope that next year we’re able to celebrate in some sort of way our 100th Powwow.”

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