COVID-19 Impact on Indian Country

with Dallin Maybee of the Native American Rights Fund

Native communities in the U.S. have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with higher rates of infection and death.

Dallin Maybee, Assistant Director of Development for the Native American Rights Fund, discusses why some tribal communities are at higher risk compared to the general population and outlines mitigation efforts to limit the spread of the virus.

Posted on:

July 22, 2020

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: Located in the American Southwest, the Navajo Nation, home to more than 173,000, is the largest Native American reservation in the United States. Hit hard by COVID-19, the Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita infection rates in America. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Native Americans and tribal communities face a really unique challenge when it comes to the fight against COVID-19, and that is something that Dallin Maybee knows a whole lot about. He is the Assistant Director of Development for the Native American Rights Fund. And he's joining me right now to talk about the impact of COVID-19 on Indian country. And, Dallin, thank you so much for being here.

Maybee: Thank you for inviting me on the program.

Anderson: So, one of the things that NARF likes to say is that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts the Native American community. Paint that picture for us. How is COVID-19 different on a reservation, versus an urban or suburban area?

Maybee: Indian country today is comprised of approximately 575 different tribal communities with their own culture, their own language, their own religions. And many of those communities are located in remote and often very rural areas of many different states across the country. And perhaps the greatest challenge to overcoming an obstacle and dealing with a pandemic like this is accessibility to healthcare. Many of our treaty rights guaranteed accessibility to things like education and healthcare needs, but, often, that healthcare is simply comprised -- is comprised of a very small clinic where rather routine procedures and checkups and things can take place. But you really need to have accessibility to larger medical centers with ventilators and rooms and things like that, which just isn't a reality for a community that is often several hundred miles away from the nearest city center.

Anderson: And that's part of the sort of reaction, too -- when somebody gets COVID, they need to access these healthcare facilities. But what about when it comes to prevention? It's my understanding that some of these reservations don't even have the basic infrastructure that would help stave off a pandemic like this. Explain.

Maybee: That's correct. For example, the Navajo Nation, in many parts, it's a massive reservation with several hundred thousand tribal members. Many of those communities have yet to have running water or even paved roads that connect all these little communities together. And so when you have a communitive unit of several thousand people who have limited access to adequate healthcare, how do they address something as dangerous as the virus, is the big question.

Anderson: It's got a lot to do with money, of course, too. And we're talking about sovereign nations when we're talking about these reservations. So what impact does that have on these communities' ability to collect some of these federal dollars that are going to testing, to prevention, to treatment?

Maybee: There's a lot of misconceptions that many tribal nations receive a lot of benefits, a lot of money from the federal government, that, somehow, casinos are a massive economic engine, when the reality is very different. Just a handful of communities have economic engines like gaming, and even then, with the coronavirus impacting and forcing the closure of these casinos, a lot of the economic stream which funds their social programs -- their fire and health and law-enforcement programs, and especially their healthcare programs -- it becomes very dangerous for communities like ours, where there is a high level of importance placed upon the intergenerational aspects of our community. And so, when a few people come down with the virus, it has the potential to spread very rapidly, then becomes a very dangerous situation for all of our communities, regardless of whether they're just a few thousand people or several hundred thousand people like Navajo Nation.

Anderson: And when we're talking about the spread, obviously, the closer quarters and the more people around just makes it worse. But the Native American community is a very communal community. So I'm wondering about the sort of cultural fallout from all of this -- what's happened, and what's changed?

Maybee: Well, that sense of community that extends beyond just our intergenerational and how we look at our family structures -- it very much, in every sense of the word, is a community. And so our ceremonies, our social gatherings -- they're all impacted, and each tribe has a different approach towards how they're gonna address the dangers of the virus with the danger of coming together as a community. For example, the Northern Arapaho Sundance required testing of all participants, of all people who will be gathered. They're requiring social distancing. Even to enter the Sundance grounds, they're requiring temperature testing and a quick survey. But it's a massive gathering of 10,000 people. They've actually limited and said that no out-of-state participants can come this year. But because of the sacred nature and how it's just such an incredible renewal -- it's essentially our New Year -- for all of our spiritual and ceremonial doings, they have to take these steps to protect the tribe and still find that area where they can comply with those spiritual needs that come to the benefit of our tribe through the Sundance.

Anderson: It certainly sounds like you need a lot, whether it's PPE, whether it's more testing, whether it's a better healthcare system. What are you doing to get the things that you need to help you stave off this pandemic? And are you able to fight this fight on your own?

Maybee: Unfortunately, no. Luckily, there are a lot of advocacy groups that have come together to create opportunities for people to donate the PPEs, to increase the amount of testing. But there's also things that are happening on the ground. The tribes are making decisions as true sovereigns to say, "Hey, look, we need to protect the health and welfare of our community members, even in an area where significant efforts are not being made." For example, the state of South Dakota -- there's a couple tribes there who have come to odds with the governor over the roadblocks that they have constructed at their boundaries. There's legal precedence that they can erect those roadblocks as they see fit. And in an effort to... an effort to come to terms with those roadblocks, Governor Noem reached out to the current administration for assistance. And there have been lawsuits filed because of some alluded threats that federal money would be withheld if they weren't able to come to some sort of cooperation with the state and with the federal government. And so each tribe is attempting to limit the impact of the virus the best that they can, just as they -- and it's an exercise in sovereignty for them.

Anderson: So it certainly sounds like there's a lot going on. And, Dallin, I want to ask you -- if people want to find out more about what you guys are doing, where can they go? Is there a website?

Maybee: There is -- visit us at, or visit any of the tribal community websites that are near you.

Anderson: Dallin Maybee with the Native American Rights Fund, thank you so much for being here.

Maybee: Thank you.

Anderson: And thanks to our viewers, as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, be sure to log on to I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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