23:05 GMT28 November 2020
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    WASHINGTON (Sputnik) - Navajo Nation, the largest Native American tribe in the United States, sees the upcoming election as an opportunity to get back to meaningful dialogue with the leadership in Washington after years of lost opportunities for its people, President Jonathan Nez told Sputnik.

    On 3 November, millions of voters will head to the polls to vote in the US election. Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden leads nationally by around 8 percent in recent polling, yet President Donald Trump has closed the gap in several swing states including some that lie in Navajo country - like Arizona.

    Expectations Under New Leadership

    The Navajo have struggled with the Trump administration over issues such as environmental stewardship, fracking, and COVID-19 funding, among others. Nez said Native Americans had more involvement in US policy that improved the quality of life of their citizens during the Obama-Biden administration.

    In the coming years, Nez said the Navajo tribe wants to return to the kind of partnership that existed between prior to the Trump administration when they had a voice in the White House.

    "It's either to continue to go backwards or to move forward in Indian country," Nez said. "What I mean... is that with this administration a lot of the policies have set the tribal nations back, even as far back as eight years."
    President Jonathan Nez (second from left)
    © Photo : Navajo Nation press service
    President Jonathan Nez (second from left)

    Native Americans had more involvement in US policy that improved the quality of life of their citizens during the Obama-Biden administration, Nez said.

    "Moving forward would mean to have new leadership in the White House, a new team of cabinet members to listen to tribes on how to be better stewards of the environment", Nez said. "We Natives people, have assisted in developing policy to help federal agencies be better stewards of the land and that didn't happen these past few years".

    The most that have transpired between the Navajo tribe and the Trump administration are legal battles, especially after the federal government withheld novel coronavirus (COVID-19) relief funding for more than a month that was for the Native American tribes. Under the CARES Act, $8 billion was allocated for federally recognised tribes, and although President Donald Trump signed the relief bill on 27 March, the Navajo Nation did not receive funding until early May.

    The Navajo tribe had to use its own funds as the first wave of cases overwhelmed the community.

    "The CARES Act funding was one where the money was supposed to go to US citizens throughout this country for relief during this pandemic but we Navajo tribes had to wait and wait and we challenged the federal governments through the courts to give us our share of CARES Act funding," Nez said. "That shouldn't happen in this day and age, but it did happen".

    In late April, the Navajo Nation joined a coalition of ten other tribes in a lawsuit against the US Treasury seeking a release of the funds.

    Voting Turnout

    The Navajo Nation is seeing larger than usual early voting numbers among tribal members in Arizona and the same is expected in the Navajo counties in the states of Utah and New Mexico, Nez said.

    "We have been encouraging our Navajo citizens to vote early because we don't want to bombard the election [polling station] during November 3rd", Nez said. "So there has been a lot of activity - the last report I received mentioned that there has been a big enormous increase in early voting in the three (Navajo) counties in Arizona, so I assume the same is happening in the Utah and New Mexico part of the Navajo Nation".

    Four Directions, a Native American voting rights group, said many Native Americans had limited access to polls because of distance issues on reservations, but Nez said Navajo Nation is not facing that issue due to their initiative to encourage early voting.

    However, Nez said their concerns are that post offices are being overwhelmed because of an increase in services amid the pandemic and also due to a large number of calls coming in from tribal members concerned about whether their mail-in ballots will arrive on time at polling stations to be counted.

    In Arizona, six members of the Navajo tribe took legal action to get a ten-day deadline extension for mail-in ballots from Navajo Nation, but on 15 October a federal appeals court upheld a lower court ruling that rejected the lawsuit.

    Native Americans lands
    © Sputnik
    Native Americans lands

    Crucial Issues - Environment, Fracking, Economy

    The Navajo Nation wants its opinion to be considered in Washington on important issues for Native Americans related to the environment and other matters that are important for the general well-being of the community, Nez said.

    "Having a seat at the table will allow us to co-manage Indian lands, parklands, and other federal lands that Native Americans deem to be sacred or even places where Natives go to get subsistence like food from the animals or harvesting Native plants, Native foods and even medicine," Nez said. "That didn't happen in these past few years".

    Native American tribes have had numerous legal battles against the Trump administration the last four years to prevent damages to sacred tribal lands threatened by the construction of the border wall on the US-Mexico border and from the construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.

    However, on the topic of fracking, Nez said the Navajo Nation opposes it on federal land but when it comes to private lands, that decision belongs to the landowner.

    "Well for Navajo there are people that have lands that they own and they're called allotted lands and they rely on income from these companies that do extract natural resources from their lands and that's a way for tribal members to make a living, especially where there are no jobs and the poverty level is at a certain point where it totally affects tribes here throughout the country," Nez said. "From what we've heard, Biden is open to those types of extraction".

    Trump has been a strong supporter of the oil industry in the United States. This election year he has criticised his Democratic rival Joe Biden of wanting to ban fracking. In the last presidential debate, Biden said he would not ban fracking if elected. However, Biden has signalled that at some point he wants to move to clean energy.

    Economic Recovery

    The Navajo president emphasiaed that the health and well-being of people must be at the forefront of any strategy to reopen the US economy.

    "If people are not confident being outside then that defeats getting our economy back or improving our economy because there's so much uncertainty right now during this pandemic, we don't have a vaccine, so this is the new normal for us, all of us throughout the country," Nez said.
    Native Americans lands
    © Sputnik
    Native Americans lands
    "It's not about taking away people's rights, it's about the health and well-being of our people."

    The Navajo Nation's tourism industry and casinos have been hard hit by the pandemic, but the community businesses have been able to stay afloat using relief funds from the CARES Act, Nez said.

    Nez said he doesn't have an accurate count of the economic losses in Navajo Nation due to the pandemic but a report analyzing the total losses so far should be available soon. In April, Nez told Sputnik that the Navajo tribe had about $10 million in economic losses due to the pandemic.

    The Navajo Nation is currently dealing with trying to spend the $714 million in relief funds given to Navajo Nation through the CARES Act before a 30 December deadline, Nez said.

    "It's going to be tough but I think Navajo, we are on course to spend most or all of the dollar by the deadline even though Congress has failed to approve a deadline extension for the CARES Act funds", Nez said.
    COVID-19 Impact

    The Navajo Nation is bracing for a second wave of novel coronavirus cases that is sweeping through the community, Nez said.

    "Navajo we are currently on our second wave, we've managed to thwart one wave off because our citizens adhere to the public health orders and recommendations coming in from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]," Nez said. "As you know, over 40 states throughout the country are seeing an increase in cases and that is also creeping in".

    To thwart the first wave of COVID-19 cases and the incoming second wave, Nez said the Navajo Nation has issued public health emergency orders imposing curfews on weekday nights and 56-hour curfews on weekends. In addition, Nez said the Navajo tribe has a face mask mandate and requires businesses to take temperatures of individuals, in addition to other mitigation measures.

    Native Americans lands
    © Sputnik
    Native Americans lands

    But the biggest challenge will be to keep Navajo members from leaving the reservation and possibly returning home infected with the disease, Nez said.

    "This second wave that is happening here on Navajo, all across the country you see an increase in cases and it's starting to sneak in... much of our contract tracing has reported that much of the cases are from family members that are bringing the virus back to Navajo and having family gatherings, social gatherings, and beginning to spread", Nez said.

    The Navajo Nation community is very vulnerable to COVID-19 because of a high percentage of the population that has cancer, diabetes and heart disease, Nez said, adding that 575 tribal members have died as of Wednesday.

    "We don't want any more [deaths]", Nez said.

    As of Wednesday, the Navajo Nation has reported a total of 11,462 COVID-19 cases since the first case was detected mid-March, according to the tribe's data.

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