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Harvard researchers sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven T. Mnuchin last week advocating for support for Native American tribes facing economic hardship in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
The team of four researchers — affiliates of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development — argued the public health crisis directly threatens nearly three decades of steady economic development for the tribes.
They wrote that of the hundreds of self-governing tribes in the United States, they are unaware of any tribal gaming enterprises — primarily casinos — that have not shut down amid the pandemic.
Kennedy School emeritus professor Joseph P. Kalt — a letter co-signer who co-founded HPAIED in 1987 — said tribal governments are “tremendously dependent” on revenues from these enterprises.
The results of the researchers’ preliminary economic analysis, which were included in the letter, indicate that tribal governments stand to lose $12.5 billion in revenues, in addition to the social and cultural losses borne by economically diminished tribes.
Kalt repeatedly compared tribal governments to local and state governments that provide a slew of essential services for their citizens. The Navajo Nation — spanning over 17 million acres in the Southwest — is home to roughly 330,000 residents and is about the size of West Virginia by area.
Yet tribal governments like the Navajo Nation lack traditional state and local tax bases. Instead, they are funded almost entirely by tribe-run gaming and non-gaming enterprises, like tourism and manufacturing. With casinos closed and customers few and far between, tribal governments — which run more than half of healthcare facilities within their borders, according to Kalt — may not have resources to adequately respond to the COVID-19 crisis.
Before the pandemic, tribal economies were experiencing long-run growth, despite pockets of enduring poverty. They began to gradually blossom decades ago after the federal government took steps to enable self-governance and self-determination.
But the pandemic may upend that progress. As tribal governments lose revenues, the letter co-signers argue, the tribes could collectively lose more than $127 billion in annual spending on goods and services, 1.1 million jobs, and $49.5 billion in wages and benefits for workers.
Kalt said their analyses also considered spillover effects on non-native populations, as tribal enterprises can economically boost neighboring towns. The researchers found that non-Native Americans will actually face the brunt of tribal decline — 70 percent of the total losses.
HPAIED Research Director and letter co-signer Miriam R. Jorgensen wrote in an emailed statement that “devastated” tribal governments need federal assistance.
“Stimulate monies from the federal government help their economies stay afloat,” she wrote.
Kalt and Jorgensen both stressed that tribal governments must retain autonomy over emergency relief funds, such as those provided by the CARES Act signed into federal law on March 27.
“We think it would be very inappropriate for the federal government to put a lot of strings on how tribal governments spend their CARES Act monies,” Kalt said. “Tribes have proven that, on average, they’re much better at making those calls about how to allocate resources.”
Though Mnuchin’s office has received their letter, Kalt said, the researchers have not received a response.
In addition to federal advocacy, HPAIED assembled an online resource toolbox for tribal leaders struggling to adapt to the pandemic.
Kalt said the team plans to conduct further economic modeling in the coming weeks and release a final report. Despite the plight, the researchers say they remain hopeful. Kalt said tribal officials were “extremely grateful” for their letter.
“American Indian nations are resilient. If they were not, they wouldn’t be here 500 years after the colonization project began in North America,” Jorgensen wrote. “They have survived pandemics before.”
—Staff writer Simon J. Levien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @simonjlevien.
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