Ernie Stevens Jr, Chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA), has published a heartfelt statement on behalf of the Indian nations as they face growing uncertainty amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Tribal leaders throughout Indian Country, he stated, are making difficult decisions to protect “our children, our communities, and our future”.

Emphasizing the extent of the damage caused by the health crisis, he wrote: “No one has escaped the impacts of COVID-19, and Indian Country is no exception. All 12 Indian Health Service regions report confirmed cases of persons testing positive for the coronavirus. Some of the hardest-hit areas of Indian Country include the Navajo Nation (813 cases as of April 13), the Pueblo of San Felipe (54), Pueblo of Zia (31) and the Tohono O’odham Nation.”

According to Stevens, the coronavirus threatens Indian Country more than other populations. “Far too many Native Americans are susceptible to this virus because of existing health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and asthma,” he noted. “But the trigger for spread of the virus is the lack of housing on Indian lands. With multiple generations of families living under one roof, this virus poses a unique challenge to tribal leaders nationwide.”

He added: “In addition to the direct health threats, the pandemic is inflicting economic distress throughout Indian Country. As early as the first week in March, tribal leaders began ordering the closures of Indian gaming, hotel, and hospitality operations to help stop the spread of the coronavirus and to protect the safety of employees, guests, and communities. These decisions were difficult, were made with the safety of our people at the front of our minds, and the tribal leaders have to be commended.”

Stevens also made a call for access to Paycheck Protection and said that NIGA is working with member tribes and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) to achieve that aim. “Small tribal gaming businesses are often primarily job creators,” he said. “Many times, although we are small business, tribal gaming is among the largest regional employers. We need Paycheck Protection to forestall even more severe economic injury to our small tribal operations.

“The National Indian Gaming Association has called upon Treasury and Small Business Administration (SBA) to fix that by removing this barrier to all tribal gaming operations that meet the employee requirements so that they can retain or re-hire their people, help put food back on their tables, and maintain these workers’ ties to Indian Country – so that when we do defeat this pandemic, we can more quickly get up and running.”

In a call for solidarity, Stevens commented: “If there was ever a time in our lives where we need to stand firm together, it is now. We must all be committed individually to doing our part to help lessen the curve and bring us forward to a new normal to rebuild upon for our families, communities, and Indian Country. 

“I assure you that throughout the pandemic, the National Indian Gaming Association has and will continue working closely with our Member Tribes and sister organizations and continue to advocate for Indian Country.

“Our prayers for strength go out to all our tribal leaders as they lead their tribal communities through these times. We also pray for the families who have lost loved ones to this virus, and prayers for health and safety for all on the frontlines providing essential, protective, and medical services. We will get through this – apart – but working together. Thank you.”