Indigenous Leaders, Frustrated by Trump’s COVID-19 Response, Gravitate to Biden



By Jessica VanEgeren

September 18, 2020

Adding insult to injury, federal coronavirus aid excluded tribal nations from critical areas of needs.

What several Indigenous leaders describe as the mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic by President Donald Trump’s administration is among a number of reasons they are throwing their support behind former Vice President Joe Biden in the November election.

“All of the glaring deficiencies of this administration could be curbed with a leader that has a plan not only to stop the spread of the virus but also a plan to protect our people and protect the health care access that we will need to fight the COVID pandemic,” said Whitney Gravelle, tribal attorney for Bay Mills Indian Community and a member of Michigan Women’s Commission. “I do believe Joe Biden will do that.”

Earlier this month, Gravelle was one of five Indigenous women leaders, including Tricia Zunker, Wausau School Board president and 7th Congressional District candidate, representing sovereign nations in three Midwest states who met virtually to discuss the needs of their communities and the upcoming presidential election. 

Speaker after speaker spoke of the inequality shown to the country’s 575 sovereign nations by the Trump administration during the handling of the pandemic, which continues to disproportionately impact tribal communities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

This is due to a failure by the administration, they say, to provide adequate testing supplies, lack of health care access in rural communities, and the trickle-down effect of two major sources of income—casinos and fisheries—that were forced to close, costing people the simultaneous loss of their jobs and health insurance.

Zunker, a member of the Ho-Chunk nation and associate justice on the Ho-Chunk Supreme Court, said there needs to be leadership in the White House and in Congress that will stop the spread of this virus. 

“Things like more testing, more personal protection equipment for our frontline workers, hazard pay, sick leave, and an extension of unemployment benefits are needed now,” Zunker said. “Even when we get past this pandemic, we need to ensure access to health care for Native people.” 

The administration of former President Barack Obama and Biden improved access to health care through the Affordable Care Act, covering 110,000 additional Native Americans and Alaskan natives, and nearly 30,000 native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders. 

“The federal government has a treaty and trust responsibility to provide health care services to Native Americans, something Joe Biden takes seriously and will ensure is fulfilled,” Zunker said. “He has a track record to prove it.”

The economic impact of the pandemic on tribal communities was exacerbated by the hit to the tribal casinos and fisheries, Gravelle said.

Initially, the federal Paycheck Protection Program that was rolled out by the US Small Business Administration ruled tribal casinos were not eligible for the loans

“It was only after fighting for something and practically begging for it that we were given something that we should have been able to have to protect our communities,” Gravelle said.

Tribal fisheries in the Great Lakes region were then left out of the fishery relief portion of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. 

“So again, another economy not afforded any kind of relief,” Gravelle said. 

tribal leaders support Biden
Republican Congressman Tom Tiffany and Democrat Tricia Zunker will face each other again in the November election.

On Thursday night, Trump held a campaign rally in Marathon County. Congressman Tom Tiffany (R-Wis.) joined Trump for part of the event. Zunker was defeated by Tiffany in April’s special election to complete the term of Republican Sean Duffy, who abruptly resigned nearly a year ago, and the two face off again in the November election for a full two-year term. 

Zunker took aim at Tiffany and Trump for holding what she called a “dangerous super-spreader” campaign event in Mosinee the same day as a record number of coronavirus cases were reported in Wisconsin. 

“President Trump’s response to COVID-19 has been a total failure,” Zunker said. “Had he listened to the experts, been honest with the American people and encouraged wearing masks immediately, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in today.”




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