June 05, 2020

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Agrees to Warren, Haaland Request to Update Broken Promises Report and Examine Pandemic Impacts on Indian Country

Washington, DC – Today, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) voted to fulfill U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and U.S. Representative Deb Haaland’s (D-N.M.) request to update the recommendations of its report, Broken Promises: Continuing Federal Funding Shortfall for Native Americans, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The vote came after Warren and Haaland asked the USCCR to examine in particular how the problems identified in the Broken Promises report have been exacerbated by the pandemic, whether Congress and the Executive Branch’s responses have done enough to help Native people, and the impact of the lack of wireless networks on tribal land and other inequities in health care, education, voting rights, economic development and more.

Pleased with the positive response, Warren and Haaland said, “The Broken Promises report is a groundbreaking, guiding examination of the federal government’s broken trust responsibility, but this pandemic has exacerbated disparities that have existed in Indian Country for generations. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ study will be informative as we hold this Administration and the entire federal government accountable for mismanagement that continues a pattern of failures that put Native people’s lives at risk during this public health emergency.”

After the vote, USCCR Chair Catherine E. Lhamon said, “The Commission in 2018 reported on the federal government's chronic underfunding of programs designed to support the social and economic wellbeing of Native Americans, in a failure of federal trust obligations to Native Americans. We are ready to revisit this crucial issue, in this global pandemic crisis, to examine direct civil rights impacts to Native American communities. We appreciate the leadership of Congresswoman Haaland and Senator Warren, and look forward to reporting to Congress, the President, and the American people what we find in our assessment.”

In testimony at a U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform Select Subcommittee hearing on the coronavirus crisis yesterday, National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp specifically urged Congress to work with the USCCR on an update to the Broken Promises report, with focus on several of the same subjects that Warren and Haaland asked the USCCR to address. President Sharp’s full written testimony is available here.

The White House reportedly opposed the provision of direct aid to tribal governments in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act—aid that is crucial for tribal nations to provide needed government services to their citizens. After a push by Senate Democrats and the Congressional Native American Caucus, the CARES Act provided this aid under the Coronavirus Relief Fund. However, after the enactment of the law, the Department of the Treasury delayed disbursement of the funds for weeks and is still activity withholding Tribes economic relief funding. Additionally, Administration initially excluded important tribal businesses from the CARES Act's Paycheck Protection Program.

The federal response to the health care aspects of the crisis—particularly a lack of funding for the Indian Health Service (IHS)—has also fallen short of what Indian Country needs. The Broken Promises report noted that per capita IHS health care expenditures in 2017 were $3,332, compared to $9,207 per person for federal health care spending nationally. Since the pandemic, the situation has only gotten worse. Tribal nations and urban Indian organizations have had to navigate red tape in order to receive desperately needed supplies and relief funds. The pandemic, coupled with inadequate federal funding, has contributed to the devastation of Nation Nations' economies, and has prevented tribal citizens from accessing healthcare, education, and employment.

In response to the Broken Promises report, Haaland and Warren released a legislative proposal last year to address chronic underfunding and barriers to sovereignty in Indian Country and hold the federal government accountable for honoring America's legal promises to Native peoples. They coauthored an op-ed in Indian Country Today about the significance of the Broken Promises report, and the need for bold action in response. Last week, they coauthored an op-ed in the Washington Post about COVID-19's impact in Indian Country and how it underscores the need for the federal government to take decisive action to empower Native Nations.

Based on tribal feedback, expert and public input, and extensive research and analysis, and with the request of Rep. David Kilmer (D-Wash.), the USCCR's Broken Promises report, released on December 20, 2018, evaluated the extent to which the federal government is meeting its trust and treaty responsibilities. The report also examined resources provided by the federal agencies that administer programs for Native Americans and Native Hawaiians, including the Departments of Health and Human Services, Interior, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, and Education, and concluded that federal programs designed to support the social and economic wellbeing of tribal nations and Native peoples remain chronically underfunded and often inefficiently structured.