Witnessing in Solidarity with the First Americans

Photos courtesy of the author

As a Native lobbyist, I feel it is important that conversations that affect Native communities include Native voices. While I cannot speak for all Native people or communities, I can speak from my own experience as a Native person who is personally affected by federal legislation.

Throughout its history, Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) has provided a platform for helping Native communities amplify their voices. In “The World We Seek: A Statement on Legislative Policy,” FCNL details its desire for a “society with equity and justice for all.” Included in the section on “Repairing Historical and Ongoing Oppression” is discussion on establishing meaningful relationships with Native Americans, who have been “decimated by disease, genocidal episodes, and deprivation of lands on which their subsistence depended.”

At no other time has this commitment to stand in solidarity with First Americans been more imperative than during this COVID-19 pandemic. The resounding impacts of the pandemic on Native nations have made it glaringly necessary.

Though data are incomplete, COVID-19 has devastated many Native communities throughout the United States. A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals that there are 3.5 times as many COVID-19 cases per capita among American Indians and Alaskan Natives than among White Americans. Historic injustices regarding food, water, and lack of healthcare have left Native communities particularly vulnerable to COVID-19’s destruction. When testing, tracking, and other vital data are limited, resources allocated to address the devastation are also limited.

COVID-19’s economic impacts on Native nations cannot be overstated. Native American nations have taken on increasing responsibility for governance of their services and lands but their inability to tax for these activities renders them dependent on income from other sources, such as casinos and tourism. 

At no other time has this commitment to stand in solidarity with First Americans been more imperative than during this COVID-19 pandemic. The resounding impacts of the pandemic on Native nations have made it glaringly necessary.

The median income for a Native household is already a third less than that of U.S. households overall. With COVID-19 forcing casinos, tourist attractions, and other primary revenue sources to close for health and safety reasons, some Native nations are facing increased hardship from the pandemic.

And then, there is violence against women. An alarming 84 percent of Native women experience violence in their lifetimes. Some communities see Native women murdered at a rate ten times the national average. COVID-19 has worsened this crisis due to its impact on already limited justice, health, and advocacy responses. Continued funding for these programs is essential.

Before the pandemic, FCNL had already set its sights on advocating for tribal provisions in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Originally passed in 1994, this bill is up for reauthorization. FCNL advocates provisions that would restore tribal jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence and would close some of the jurisdictional gaps victims currently face when seeking justice.

Once COVID-19 hit, FCNL shifted its priorities to incorporate COVID-19 relief for tribes and legislation aimed at ending the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The organization is advocating for funding for victim services for tribes in the next COVID-19 relief package and urging lawmakers to grant tribes maximum flexibility and discretion in administering the funds.

The author (right) with constituents from FCNL’s Alaska Delegation visiting Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) (not pictured).

Earlier this year, U.S. Senate leadership released the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act, a series of COVID-19 relief bills. The HEALS Act includes $6.5 million to be set aside for tribal needs through the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA). Unfortunately, it fell short for tribes as it lacked funding for VAWA or Victims of Crime Act grants. The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which passed in the House on May 15, included $5 million set aside for FVPSA and $7.8 million in VAWA grants to tribal governments.

Both the HEALS Act and the HEROES Act failed to adequately address the needs of tribal governments and organizations as they deal with rising cases of sexual and domestic violence in Indian Country during the pandemic. FCNL continues to advocate for tribal provisions in COVID-19 relief bills.

There have been some victories in 2020, however. Earlier this fall, FCNL celebrated the congressional passage of two bills that will help develop better law enforcement and reporting practices when it comes to crimes against American Indians and Alaskan Natives. Named after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a pregnant Lakota woman who went missing only to be found brutally murdered in August 2017 (her child survived), Savanna’s Act aims to improve the responses to missing and murdered Native women through stronger cross-agency coordination. It also requires data on missing and murdered Native people to be properly reported.

Also signed into law in October 2020, the Not Invisible Act creates an advisory committee on crimes against Native people to make recommendations to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior.

FCNL’s Native American Advocacy Program does not end there, as it strives to be inclusive of Native nations in all its domestic priorities. There are currently 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States, as well as many other Native communities still fighting for recognition. Since the tribes are so culturally and geographically diverse, their needs and challenges vary greatly, but they are making strides to build a better future.

Tribes are speaking out about the federal government’s trust responsibility to provide for their well-being as sovereign nations and their ability to grow and prosper—not merely exist. Government shutdowns drastically affect Native Americans, as many tribes depend on federal funding for health programs. Whenever the U.S. government shuts down, tribes cannot pay employees for these essential services. Instead, they are forced to reallocate funds from other important needs. Native American advocates are asking Congress to ensure that federal agencies like the Indian Health Service receive advance funding to help curb the harmful impact of government shutdowns.

FCNL’s Native American advocacy is based on its desire to witness in solidarity with the First Americans. Its policy initiatives were shaped 44 years ago, when it began lobbying to restore and improve U.S. relations with Native nations so that the United States honors the promises made in hundreds of treaties. Over the years, FCNL has developed a credibility that enables it to provide information to congressional offices and to national faith groups about the continuing struggles of Native people. It advocates for support for the resilient and inventive solutions proposed by tribal governments and Native American organizations.

In 2017, FCNL took this responsibility a step further, launching its Native American Congressional Advocacy program to train young advocates. With a program dedicated entirely to Native policy, FCNL can dedicate more time and resources to working on legislation in Indian Country.

The author (right) with her predecessor, Lacina Tangnaqudo Onco (left), and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) (center).

To support FCNL’s advocacy on behalf of Native Americans, Nebraska Yearly Meeting established a Native American Fund in 1993. In June 2019, the FCNL Education Fund received a generous endowment gift that grew the endowment for the program. This endowment helps guarantee the long-term sustainability of the Native American Advocacy Program.

FCNL remains one of a few faith-based groups that lobbies with Native Americans on issues affecting their communities. Hiring a Native lobbyist helps to ensure that the organization does not speak on behalf of Native communities but in solidarity with them. My predecessor, Lacina Tangnaqudo Onco (Shinnecock/Kiowa), led the program as its first congressional advocate, earnestly advocating on the same legislative issues.

Since joining FCNL in 2019, I too have enjoyed building connections with other organizations and working with coalition partners. Because Native American policy touches so many other policy areas, it is vital to build connections with both Native and non-Native organizations that may be working on Native policy but in different spaces from FCNL (such as nutrition or education). Working in solidarity with partners expands FCNL’s understanding of the depth and breadth of issues facing Native communities.

Kerri Colfer

Kerri Colfer is a member of the Tlingit tribe of Southeast Alaska. She manages the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s Native American Advocacy Program, lobbying on legislation that affects Native communities. Kerri holds a BA in English literature from Brown University and a JD from Temple University.

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