Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

August 22, 2020

In the midst of the pandemic, Native Americans relying on agriculture, fishing and gathering inspire hope

While the pandemic devastates Native American economies, those based on agriculture, fishing and gathering inspire hope

By Brenda Norrell
Censored News

The pandemic has devastated the economies of Native Americans. In the long pages of testimony on economic devastation for Native people, a few words stand out, offering a glimmer of hope for a sustainable future. Separate from the billions of dollars lost in casino revenues nationwide, there are economies based on the natural world for survival.

They are the people of the land and water, maintaining agriculture, fishing and gathering.

When it comes to agriculture, the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation in South Dakota relies on both agriculture and grazing livestock. Relying heavily on its agricultural economy, Cheyenne River said the economic hardships are often delayed until the end of the production season.

"Over 90 percent of our agricultural economy is tied directly to grazing livestock. Because of the COVID-19 crisis, this year’s growing season is in serious jeopardy," Cheyenne River said in its comments urging the allocation of federal funds under the CARES Act.

"Our tribal member producers will lose income from sales. They will suffer a loss of equity and borrowing power. The capacity of our producers to timely make their lease payments to the tribe from production income is in serious doubt, if not in outright jeopardy. These losses by individual livestock producers flow up and impact Tribal governments."

Photo courtesy Cheyenne River Lakota Nation

Cheyenne River depends on the direct lease payments from cattle, buffalo, horse and sheep producers, along with commodity crop agriculture.

"All told, a significant percentage of general tribal operations are funded directly by agriculture," Cheyenne River said.

Photo courtesy Chilkat Indian Village
Hidden away in the testimony on the need for aid for Indian country, is both the reality of the economic devastation and a glimpse at what the future may bring.

In the northwest, the pandemic has meant financial devastation to the fishing industry. It also has meant losses from the cruise ship tourism industry.

The Chilkat Indian Village in Alaska said, "Our Tribe has been hit hard with the COVID 19 virus outbreak. Our financial stability has been devastated by the impact of the cruise ship tourism operations being suspended this tourism season."

"Our Tribe has a state-of-the-art Museum/Heritage Center that opened 5 years ago. With no cruise ship tourism, we have no revenue to sustain the operational costs, let alone continue the staffing of the facility and tourism operation that is associated with its operations."

"Our Tribal government and Heritage center are the main employers for our tribal members and COVID 19 is crippling our economic stability," the Chilkat Indian Village said.

Photo courtesy Metlakatla Indian Community

The Metlakatla Indian Community, located on Annette Island in Alaska, said it depends on the sale of geoduck, halibut and salmon.

"When we learned that our neighboring community of Ketchikan, Alaska, had identified one of the first cases in Alaska on March 17, we acted quickly and declared a disaster emergency, issued a stay home, stay-safe quarantine order, and banned all visitors to the Reserve."

Photo courtesy Metlakatla Indian Community

Other than the handful of staff who can work from home, and essential workers, Metlakatla effectively shut down their tribal government.

"Our commercial fishing operation has also been operating at a severely diminished capacity due to the significant decrease in worldwide demand for geoduck and halibut."

"If the same market response occurs for the salmon industry, which is by far the Community's most lucrative, the financial consequences on the Community's economy, and in turn, our members' and their families' health and welfare, could be dire."

Photo courtesy Skagway Traditional Council

The Skagway Traditional Council pointed out that remote communities have enormous costs for medical evacuations to Indian Health Service hospitals, and for shipping and travel for goods and services.

Without the seasonal work on cruise ships or fishing, the pandemic poses the threat of starvation and hypothermia next winter.

"Moreover, some of the smaller communities rely more than 90 to 95 percent on seasonal work whether it's cruise ships or fishing, etc. and without those types of jobs due to the pandemic people are in great danger of facing starvation and hyperthermia for the next winter," the Skagway Traditional Council said.

Skagway, located in southeastern Alaska, includes Haida, Tlingit, and other Alaskan Natives.

Photo courtesy Nome Eskimo Community.

While urging federal relief, the Nome Eskimo Community included the need for financial support for fuel and other necessities to support subsistence hunting and gathering.

Describing the impact of the economic devastation of the pandemic, the Akiak Native Community also requested gas and oil for hunting, fishing and gathering for food for families.

The Samish Indian Nation pointed out that the northwest region was the first epicenter of the pandemic for Indian country.

"Snohomish County reported the first case of the coronavirus in the U.S. and was identified as the epicenter for the U.S. The Pacific Northwest has been identified as a 'hot spot' both as the location of the first documented deaths and its rapid spread to Indian Country in Oregon and Washington State. Skagit County, where our headquarters are located, ranks 8th in the world for positive COVID-19 cases," the Samish Indian Nation said in the spring while documenting the impact.

The pandemic was not expected, and neither was the financial devastation for the most generous.

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux in Minnesota, known for their generosity with their casino revenues, said it faces unknown losses due to the closure of its gaming enterprise and outstanding loans to other tribes. The tribe said that those loans total $300 million to other tribes and may result in deferrals or defaults.

Still, in the midst of the pages of the unimaginable losses of billions of dollars nationwide in Indian country casino revenues -- losses in revenues and jobs which impact Indian and non-Indian workers, and the economies of states --  the words agriculture, fishing and gathering inspire hope.

Notes from the publisher: Sustainable Economies 

Reading testimony can be dry, but in the case of the justification for the federal virus relief, there is hidden away the nuts and bolts of how Native American economies are operating.
While most of the pages describe the billions of dollars nationwide lost when tribal casinos shut their doors --  a few others stand out: Cheyenne River Lakota for farming and livestock and Alaskan villages for fishing and gathering.
It opens a new door to discussions on sustainable Native economies.
But even before the pandemic there was a great inequality in the distribution of wealth to the people. Not all lucrative tribal casinos returned the wealth to the people. And not all of the corporations who used a tribe's name to win federal contracts returned the wealth to the people.
In the testimony for the need for CARES Act funds, there is little mention of coal mining and power plants, signaling that the era of fossil fuels and its underpaid royalties are coming to an end, leaving only the pollution, damaged land and drained aquifers behind.
As the pandemic brings a halt to the status quo, it opens a new arena for discussions of sustainable tribal economies. 
-- Censored News.

Article copyright Brenda Norrell, Censored News

1 comment:

Lloyd Vivola said...

Excellent survey of the complex concerns and challenges facing Native Nations at this time of pandemic, economic uncertainty, and climate disruption. CARES ACT document worth downloading and saving. Added note - Sustainable Economies -appreciated.