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A call to action for Indigenous communities

In our pueblo communities, winter is a time of rest and reflection. It is a time for people to slow down, to find comfort in the silence of the season, and to examine the lessons of the past. So, as we enter this quiet period, let us reflect on where we have been this year – only then can we begin to plot a course to where we are headed.

The path of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is long and still months away. This virus has been a tragic epidemic for every community in New Mexico, but this year we witnessed how a public health crisis can threaten even the most resilient communities. Tribes, like other communities of color, have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. During the height of the surge this summer nearly 60% of cases in the state were identified as American Indian. That number is astonishing considering native people comprise 11% of the total population of the state.

So, how do we account for such disproportionate rates? Some have said COVID-19 has exposed the inequities that exist in our society, the deep systemic injustices that have been invisible until now. But what is more accurate is to say that COVID-19 has just confirmed what we as native people have always known. The virus and its collateral damage have reinforced the fact some communities are more vulnerable simply because they have been left behind. These are the communities where running water, electricity, broadband and telephone service are seen as options rather than essential public utilities. What we now know is the pandemic has been exacerbated in our tribal communities by a persistent lack of infrastructure investment.

Despite this long history of neglect, and perhaps even because of it, tribes have remained resilient and strong. This summer as the epidemic reached its peak, tribal nations acted swiftly and instituted strict containment procedures. Throughout the pandemic tribes shut down their businesses, locked down communities and did everything possible to help mitigate the crisis. It was during this time that the state stepped in and delivered on its commitment to our native citizens. Over the course of several months, tribes received thousands of pounds of food, water and other essentials. Deliveries from the National Guard helped our tribes respond and safeguard our elders and our young people.

Working alongside Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and her administration, testing and surveillance have been deployed in every tribal community. And while we are again seeing an increase in cases statewide, tribal nations remain committed to flattening the curve once again. Effective partnerships like this are possible through the strong government-to-government relationship that has been fostered by this administration. We commend the governor on her steadfast leadership through this crisis and we ask for her continued support moving forward.

Looking ahead at the prospect of a reduced state budget and the tough decisions that will be made at the upcoming legislative sessions, let us not forget the hard-won lessons of the pandemic. Instead, I encourage decision-makers to use this time to examine the systemic inequities that have made COVID-19 so devastating for communities like mine. And to use this crisis as an opportunity to give voice to those that have been left out of the discussion for so long. We have invested in relief; now it is time to invest in recovery.

In closing, I offer the following words of support to all of you. As you join your communities and embrace the winter, let us give thanks for the small blessings that continue to give us hope. And whether we can be with our families or must remain apart let us express words of love, appreciation, encouragement, and support for one another. We will get through this as we always have, by coming together and remaining united.

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