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Overcrowding Makes It Hard For Native Americans To Socially Distance


The pandemic is drawing attention to a housing crisis in Indian country. There's not enough affordable housing, and so you have two or three families sharing small houses, which, of course, is putting native people at risk. Here's Savannah Maher from Wyoming Public Radio.

SAVANNAH MAHER, BYLINE: The two tribes that share the Wind River Reservation have rapidly growing populations. But the housing supply has been dwindling for decades. Hope Tidzump is deputy director of the Eastern Shoshone Tribal Housing Authority. She says in most places, this supply and demand problem would put huge numbers of people on the streets. But here on Wind River, housing insecurity looks different.

HOPE TIDZUMP: Given the fact that we're all in Native American families. You know, we bring in our loved ones, our grandparents, take care of them - or, you know, grandparents taking care of their grandbabies.

MAHER: The new social distancing rules that come with this pandemic are hard to follow when you share a home with 10 or 15 relatives. And Tidzump says if one person in a crowded home is infected. Stopping the spread could be near impossible.

TIDZUMP: Me and my husband - we have eight children. If one individual tests positive for it, of course, it's going to be hard to quarantine just one child and us as parents.

KEVIN ALLIS: Those kinds of living conditions, when you introduce a virus like this, could be catastrophic.

MAHER: Kevin Allis, CEO of the National Congress of American Indians, says funding for federal Indian housing programs has been virtually frozen for decades, in violation of the promises made in treaties tribes signed with the federal government in the 19th century.

ALLIS: When tribes ceded millions and millions and millions of acres in exchange for all that land that was worth a fortune, the tribes got forever to have all their health care taken care of, all their education needs taken care of, all their infrastructure taken care of.

MAHER: The stimulus bill that President Trump signed on March 27 sets aside $8 billion in direct funding to tribes and another 2 billion to federal Indian programs. New Mexico Senator Tom Udall pushed for about twice that much. But he called this bill a good deal for Indian country, especially the $300 million headed to federal Indian housing programs.

TOM UDALL: The housing dollars have not been there for the tribes. And the good thing about this is we have a big infusion now into housing.

MAHER: But Eastern Shoshone Business Councilwoman Karen Snyder says she'll believe it when she sees it.

KAREN SNYDER: We always see that - the trickle-down effect. By the time the actual dollars get to the tribe, it's such a small pot of money. It's like, jeez, why did we go through all of these administrative hoops? And we end up with this.

MAHER: She says the Business Council has a plan to convert the tribe's temporarily shut-down hotel into emergency quarantine housing. She says she's never seen the federal government so engaged in matters like Wind River's housing crisis.

SNYDER: We do see a silver lining with this. And it is for the federal government to actually start paying attention to Indian country.

MAHER: But she says that shouldn't have taken a global pandemic. If and when federal aid does trickle down to Wind River, Snyder says emergency housing will be a priority. But for now, they're doing what Indian country always does during a crisis - taking care of their own with what resources they have.

For NPR News, I'm Savannah Maher.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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