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Exclusive: Senators Focus On Tribal Nations’ Double Crisis Of COVID-19 & Road Safety

“It’s time the United States honors its treaty and trust responsibility to Native American communities by addressing its decades of federal neglect and underinvestment in transportation infrastructure,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) said when introducing a new bill Wednesday.

Miss Navajo Nation Shaandiin P. Parrish helps distribute food, water, and other supplies along with members of the Air Force to Navajo families on May 27, 2020 in Huerfano on the Navajo Nation Reservation, New Mexico. | Getty Images
Miss Navajo Nation Shaandiin P. Parrish helps distribute food, water, and other supplies along with members of the Air Force to Navajo families on May 27, 2020 in Huerfano on the Navajo Nation Reservation, New Mexico. | Getty Images

Native American communities around the U.S., like the rest of the country, are facing a deadly surge of COVID-19 cases — but the existing disparities in health, public safety, and key infrastructure in tribal nations can mean the effects are even more devastating.

New legislation could help change that. Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, on November 18 introduced the PATHWAYS Act, which stands for Promoting Access to Tribal Health, Wellbeing, and Youth Safety. The proposed bill comes as Navajo Nation, one of the nation’s largest tribes, enters a new lockdown due to “uncontrolled spread” of the coronavirus. It focuses on something many Americans take for granted: safe roads, and their connection to health care access.

“In many communities within Indian Country, run-down roads are not merely an inconvenience—they create an obstacle for daily life and put lives at greater risk. Unsafe and unreliable infrastructure makes it harder to get healthy groceries, arrive safely to school or find new employment opportunities,” Sen. Carper said in a statement.

According to federal health agencies, unintentional injuries, including traffic-related fatalities, are the leading cause of death for Native Americans aged 1-44. That “unintentional injury” category used by the government for classification also includes drowning, poisoning, and falls, and like many health issues, is seen in tribal nations at much higher rates than other racial groups in the United States.

The CDC reports that among infants under one year old in Native communities, the motor vehicle traffic death rate is eight times higher than that of non-Hispanic whites. Among Native Americans who are younger than 19 years old, motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of death — meaning that this group is “at greater risk of preventable injury-related deaths than any other racial/ethnic group” in the U.S., the CDC says.

Sen. Carper and his Democratic co-sponsors want to emphasize that this unnecessary death is indeed preventable, if the U.S. would live up to its commitment to its native communities.

“It has become increasingly clear that the transportation crisis is also a public health crisis,” Carper said. “It’s time the United States honors its treaty and trust responsibility to Native American communities by addressing its decades of federal neglect and underinvestment in transportation infrastructure.”

Aside from the danger that unsafe roads pose, the lack of basic transportation safety also affects access to emergency services and hospitals. 

The PATHWAYS Act would establish a new program in the Department of Transportation dedicated to overseeing federal investments to improve public safety and promote public health in tribal communities. It would authorize $25 million annually for projects including the “construction, planning, and design of on-road and off-road trail facilities and other non-motorized forms of transportation, including sidewalks, bicycle infrastructure, pedestrian and bicycle signals, lighting, and other safety-related infrastructure.” It’s co-sponsored by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Jon Tester (D-MT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Martin Heinrich (D-NM).

In the recent presidential election, the Native vote proved crucial in key states for President-elect Joe Biden. He flipped Arizona from a “steady and unassailable red” to blue for the first time since 1996, as NPR put it, and turnout from Navajo Nation helped. Vox reported that 60 to 90 percent of Navajo Nation’s roughly 67,000 eligible voters voted for Biden. He won Arizona with a margin of about 10,000 more votes than President Donald Trump.

The Native vote has also proven crucial in congressional and local races. And the turnout is despite the high barriers to voting that Native Americans face, including basic access to polling sites.

Biden and Vice President-elect Sen. Kamala Harris celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day in Arizona in October and introduced their plan for tribal nations

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress, served as a key surrogate for the Biden campaign and has supported his plans for environmental justice, the climate crisis, and improving quality of life in tribal nations. As the president-elect builds his cabinet, more than 120 elected tribal leaders and officials are urging Biden to pick Haaland as his Secretary of the Interior, which would mark the first time a Native American served in a cabinet position. Sen. Heinrich has also reportedly signaled interest in the position.

Though it remains to be seen how far the PATHWAYS Act can get in the remaining weeks of the current Senate session, Carper and the other co-sponsors hope its introduction now means the proposal will be in a good position to figure into Biden’s “Build Back Better” plans. November is also Native American Heritage Month.