RELEASE: The COVID-19 Response in Indian Country: A Federal Failure

Washington, D.C. — A new report from the Center for American Progress traces the devastating impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities to the U.S. government’s failure to uphold its trust and treaty obligations to Indian Country.

Tribal communities have faced some of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the world. The Navajo Nation alone has seen higher infection rates than those in Wuhan, China, at the height of the pandemic. The pandemic has also become an existential threat to many tribes because it is disproportionately killing elders, who are the gatekeepers of tribal languages, customs, and traditions.

On June 4, 2020, Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, testified before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform that “[d]espite its fiduciary responsibility, the federal government has consistently neglected its legal obligations to tribal nations and citizens resulting in a 21st century health and socio-economic crisis in Indian Country. This existing crisis created disparities that led to American Indians and Alaska Native’s (AI/AN) vulnerability to the coronavirus-19 pandemic.”

The CAP report supports the findings of tribal leaders such as President Sharp and attributes the high rates of infection to structural disparities and conditions born out of the U.S. government’s treaty-violating, trust-abrogating policy decisions. The systemic and sustained underfunding of Indian Country has only been compounded by the Trump administration’s neglectful, disjointed, and misguided coronavirus response. The administration’s response has kneecapped tribal leaders’ ability to effectively respond to the crisis, despite the fact that most tribes enacted early containment measures that went beyond those of neighboring nontribal communities.

The report lays out immediate and long-term policies in seven areas, which would address both the pressing coronavirus crisis and the structural inequities that have made Indian Country more vulnerable to health crises. They include:

  1. Ensuring the inclusion of AI/AN people in COVID-19 data
  2. Developing executive branch infrastructure to address bureaucratic barriers
  3. Supporting the development of tribal economies
  4. Addressing the chronic underfunding of the Indian Health Service system
  5. Supporting the development of Indian Country’s critical infrastructure
  6. Supporting vulnerable populations by funding tribal public safety and justice needs
  7. Restoring tribal homelands and supporting tribal ecocultural resource management

“The disproportionate devastation that Indian Country has faced from the COVID-19 pandemic can be clearly traced to systemic trust and treaty violations by the United States—both over the centuries and over the past several months,” said Danyelle Solomon, vice president of Race and Ethnicity Policy at the Center for American Progress.

“The U.S. government must start to uphold its obligations, respect tribal sovereignty, and give communities what they are owed to fight the pandemic. Tribes are telling us what they need, and it is now incumbent upon the U.S. government to listen and act,” added Kate Kelly, director of Public Lands at the Center.

Read: “The COVID-19 Response in Indian Country: A Federal Failure” by Sahir Doshi, Allison Jordan, Kate Kelly and Danyelle Solomon

For more information or to speak to an expert, contact Sam Hananel at or Julia Cusick at .

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.