Coronavirus Is Creating a Food Security Crisis in Indian Country

‘There’s no way this is going to end well.’ The coronavirus is devastating Indigenous communities, long shut out of food supply chains and infrastructure development.



June 17, 2020 update: A federal judge has ordered Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to immediately distribute $679 million in emergency relief funds to Native American tribes that should have been delivered months ago.

May 18, 2020 update: The Navajo Nation has surpassed New York and New Jersey for the highest per-capita coronavirus infection rate in the U.S.

May 5, 2020 update: The Treasury Department announced they would begin distributing some, but not all, of the coronavirus stimulus intended for Native American tribes, based on population.

“There’s no way this is going to end well,” said Catherine Bryan, explaining the dire circumstances Native tribes are facing as coronavirus has taken hold in their communities. Bryan is the director of the Strengthening Tribal and Community Institutions program at the First Nations Development Institute (FNDI), a nonprofit grantmaking organization, and one of many people working to support Indigenous people on the frontlines of coronavirus.

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As of today, there are more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 in the Navajo Nation—the largest Indigenous reservation in the continent, spanning more than 17 million square miles of rural Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, with a population of more than 350,000 people. And so far, there have been 44 confirmed deaths. If the Navajo Nation were a U.S. state, it would rank behind only New York and New Jersey for per-capita confirmed cases.

The federal response has so far been entirely lacking. Despite hundreds of calls with tribal governments, suppliers along the food chain, healthcare agencies, and more, advocates have had no contact with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The $8 billion in support that was directed to Native tribes in the CARES Act is held up in Washington, in a dispute stemming from the Department of the Interior’s decision to allow for-profit corporations in Alaska owned by Alaska Native shareholders to receive funds.

Civil Eats spoke with Bryan and her co-workers at FNDI—A-dae Romero-Briones, director of the Native Agriculture and Food System program, and Jackie Francke, vice president of programs and administration—about the situation they have witnessed on the ground for the Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo people. In addition to limited medical resources, and escalating mortality rates, the Navjo and Hopi communities are facing drastic food and water shortages.

Can you lay out the situation in your communities for our readers?

Adae Romero-Briones: In one Pueblo, we had six deaths in a community of 2,000. That gets lost when we look at New York City, where there are thousands of people dying, and we don’t hear the individual stories. But in Native communities, six people dying in one day, it’s monumental—I don’t know how else to describe it—especially when you think about how precious each individual is to the continuation of culture or tradition and contribution to community. Yesterday, we had some of the tribal leaders break down in tears on a call because they were asking, ‘Is this our peak?’ And when the response was, ‘No, this is just the beginning.’ Tribal leaders were shedding tears because we’re just not in the position to address these things.”

It’s so infuriating, and I try to not be upset, but I have to ask: Do people even care about Native people?

A neighboring Pueblo is probably going to be the next hotspot. They just had two cases yesterday and they’re going to have to shut down. They don’t have any test kits, so the only way they can tell if they have positive tests is to isolate the entire community and see how many people get sick. And in the meantime, we have to figure out how to feed the community when they’re in isolation, without government intervention. Once they become a hot spot, they’ll be eligible for government food assistance. Until then, what do we do? And it’s so infuriating and I try to not be upset, but I have to ask: Do people care about Native people? It’s hard. It’s so hard.

Jackie Francke: We have come across funders and partners who have access to large quantities of food. But we’re finding that, although it’s possible to get food transported to Albuquerque, it’s that last mile to the community that’s a huge gap in the supply chain. Even though the National Guard is responding and some food is being delivered to the most vulnerable folks, what happens to the other tribal members? There’s still not enough food. There are a lot of tribal members who still do not have running water or electricity—so sending frozen meat or fresh produce, that can be tricky. It has to be very specific: canned goods, water, foods that have a shelf life, because that’s the need.

Romero-Briones: When you think about how important it is to wash your hands frequently during this crisis, and you don’t have running water, and Navajo have to haul their water from [far away], and your reservation is closed now because they don’t want to increase COVID-positive cases, that becomes so difficult. So water has to be shipped in. We just did a large water purchase—we did a water purchase—that makes me so upset; water is a basic human right, and we’re having to purchase water from a corporation that doesn’t serve our communities in the first place. There are so many things about this situation that make me so upset.

What efforts is FNDI undertaking to help feed people, and what challenges are you facing?

Romero-Briones: In California, there are all these canceled contracts that were meant for restaurants and schools—there are producers who have food they need to move, so we made a large purchase from California Food Shed Funders—4,000 pounds of meat. They committed to send it to where it was needed. This was our test case, and we learned that identifying infrastructure at the community level to accept the meat is a real challenge. There’s no storage [facility] big enough to hold it, there are few or no carriers who can get it from New Mexico to very rural places in the Navajo Nation where most people don’t even go.

We’ve spent almost two weeks trying to figure out how to get this one order of much-needed meat to communities. And then once it gets there, some people don’t have refrigeration, they don’t have electricity. How are they going to [cook] it? We have so many supply issues to deal with. These are issues that have been apparent for decades, and now we have to figure those out in weeks or days.

We have people with [livestock] dying. In three months, six months, people are going to need food to eat and they have these sheep and cattle that could potentially help them, but they are dying now because there’s not enough food and water to keep the animals alive.

Francke: What is really critical is identifying distribution routes, working with communities to establish those distribution chains, and where the drop-off points are, and doing it in a way that really benefits tribes. Don’t do it for them, but let them identify it with you. That’s really important. Everyone wants to help, but the tribes really have to be engaged in the conversation.

That last mile is so critical and there are so many points involved in that: internet, cell phones, transportation, infrastructure, water—and a lot of [philanthropic] groups say they don’t fund infrastructure.

Romero-Briones: Here’s a concrete example: In one Pueblo, there have been close to 100 cases in a community of nearly 2,000, and more people are going to die. And they had to buy a really expensive cell tower, because you there wasn’t cell service on the reservation—so EMTs and healthcare professionals had no idea how to maneuver in that community; it’s critical because if you can’t find the people who need help once you cross the line onto the reservation, it’s so awful—it creates chaos.

Can you speak to the government response so far—or lack thereof?

Romero-Briones: There are a lot of government entities that are absent. Local government and federal agencies are just failing people right now. But tribes are stepping up: The Pueblo of Pojoaque had to shut down their gaming operations, but they opened up their hotel for all the people who are COVID-positive, so that they could actually isolate. So you see a lot of Indian country taking care of Indian country, because nobody’s coming to our aid right now. It’s very apparent but it’s not easy—and it’s not easy to watch. It’s not easy to feel like you’re at the bottom of everybody’s consciousness.

Francke: Everyone is saying, “Oh, the tribe is getting stimulus funds.” I mean, you’re talking about how many different tribes are going to have to split that money across the U.S.? So that is not going to solve the problem. We need to be looking locally. How can we start revitalizing our local food systems and having tribes at the table? We need to be working with federal agencies and have these tribes identifying how these funds should come to them, not dictating how [they have] to use those funds.

What kind of local efforts are you seeing?

Francke: This [pandemic] happened so fast on the Navajo Nation. There are 110 chapters, with chapter houses at the center of the communities; that’s where everyone gathers. So when those chapter houses shut their doors, people started coming together, trying to figure out how to get food to people in need.

One group of Navajo started the Navajo and Hopi Families COVID Relief Fund, they started a GoFundMe page. Now we’re hearing groups coming out from the Northern Navajo relief fund community, the Eastern Navajo Relief Committee. So groups are starting to gather, they’re starting to respond. The community members and volunteers are the ones making all of this happen.

We have to change things so that our communities don’t suffer like this again.

Catherine Bryan: Maybe we’ll get through this phase, but that last mile can’t be forgotten again. It’s critical that what’s been happening right now in the Pueblos and the Navajo [reservation] continue to receive attention and support. I’m not saying I’m giving up on right now, but there’ve been days where it’s been devastating to watch. When I watch what’s happening at Navajo I think about what’s happening in New York and wish more than anything that we could turn back the clock. But we can’t. When it’s over, we have to change things so that our communities don’t suffer like this again.

How has the media reported on food insecurity in these communities?

Bryan: I am really struggling in this pandemic because we only have soundbites to get people’s attention, and as always people are looking for positive stories coming out of this crisis and it’s so critical to have them. But I also want to hear the facts, what’s really happening. It’s good what [media outlets] are doing, but that New York Times article was really frustrating because it talked about how individuals at various tribes are relying on valuable traditions, like foraging for dandelions. But it was so diminishing because it only told part of the story. That’s a really important tradition, but it’s not going to save our community members right now. I got really angry after I read that.

Romero-Briones: Yes, I think more Indian people are gathering [wild foods], more are wanting to go hunting and fishing. But the reality is, in California, they’re shutting down fishing, they’ve closed all the beaches. Even if we wanted to go collect dandelions, everything is shut down. And we’re being chased out of the places where we can get these traditional foods.

That was not mentioned in that New York Times article. And how dare you talk about people collecting these foods when the most basic needs—like water—are not accessible to a large majority of people in this country right now. And it’s not because water is not available—it’s because we are outside of these supply chains and people are not helping us get water to these communities. That is the issue.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Top photo CC-licensed by Neil Moralee.

View Comments (1)

  1. Vickie Cornelius
    Tuesday, April 21st, 2020
    Maybe the donations of food; meat, fruit, an vegetable can be dehydrated then distributed to the communities