Tribal nations face most severe crisis in decades as the coronavirus closes casinos

(Ted S. Warren | AP) In this April 30, 2020, photo, a sign reads "Stop COVID-19 Coronavirus together" at the new Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma, Wash.. The casino is owned by the Puyallup Tribe of Indians and is currently closed. Hundreds of tribal casinos across the country have voluntarily closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, in many cases taking away a tribe's primary source of revenue used to operate tribal government and social programs.

Albuquerque, N.M. • Tribal nations around the United States are facing their most severe crisis in decades as they grapple simultaneously with some of the deadliest coronavirus outbreaks in rural America and the economic devastation caused by the protracted shutdown of nearly 500 tribally owned casinos.

The Navajo Nation, the country’s largest Indian reservation, now has a higher death rate than any U.S. state except New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Across Indian Country, more than 5,200 cases have been confirmed in communities from Arizona to Minnesota — a number that might seem small compared with those in major urban centers in New York and Los Angeles, but which in many cases represents significant local clusters that are challenging the limited resources of tribal clinics and rural hospitals.

On reservations in the Dakotas and Montana where good housing is scarce, extended families have been forced to shelter together in tiny homes with no clean water and no internet. On the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, the Northern Arapaho Tribe opened its casino as a quarantine site.

The collective perils — fragile health care systems, large numbers of people with preexisting conditions and the collapse of tribal economies — have prompted Native American leaders to warn that serious havoc may be ahead, especially if shut down casinos prevent tribes from battling to recover on their own.

“Life and death,” said Bryan Newland, tribal chairman of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, who estimated that about two-thirds of tribal employees were out of work. “We’re just going to write off 2020. There’s no sense in trying to work under the delusion that we’ll be able to claw back to normal life this year.”

The closure of the tribal casinos, which have emerged as one of the largest new sources of employment of any economic sector in the U.S. in recent decades, is eviscerating the revenues many tribal nations use to provide basic services. In one of the most important shifts toward increasing self-determination since the start of the century, more than 40% of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. now operate casinos.

Now these operations are hemorrhaging jobs. After the entire industry shut down in the early days of social distancing measures, more than 700,000 people were left out of work, according to Meister Economic Consulting, which specializes in the tribal gaming industry.

In Michigan and Indiana, almost 1,500 workers were laid off at casinos owned by the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians. Up and down California, tribal nations have laid off or furloughed casino workers. In Connecticut, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribal nations announced last week that they were laying off the majority of their nearly 5,000 workers.

Non-Native Americans account for about 70% of workers in tribally owned casinos, reflecting the economic importance of such operations in many rural parts of the country. Altogether, tribal gaming enterprises generated $17.7 billion in local, state and federal tax revenue in 2019, according to a letter sent to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in April by members of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.

In an interview, Harvard scholar Joseph Kalt likened the far-reaching devastation caused by shutdowns of tribal businesses around the country this year to the demise of the bison herds in the 19th century and the contentious attempt in the 1950s to disband tribes and relocate Native Americans to cities.

“You’d have to go back to the ’50s for something of this magnitude,” said Kalt, a co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.

“What you’re seeing right now is simply a symptom of a much deeper problem facing tribal nations for over a century,” said Fawn R. Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians. “The failure to fund us has left us incredibly vulnerable.”

It was not until the beginning of the 21st century that tribal gaming began to gather considerable momentum, providing tribal nations a crucial source of funding that could not collect taxes.

Some tribes have continued paying their employees despite the closures, in attempts to stave off the economic pain. But after federal authorities delayed providing tribes with their portion of $8 billion in assistance from federal stimulus measures, the losses are accumulating.

The Treasury Department has been slow to disperse the aid, and tribal leaders have expressed exasperation over the delays at a time when the virus is hitting them hard.

In Michigan, the closure of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community’s casino has already produced monthly losses of about $2 million, depleting funds for police patrols and the health clinic serving the 3,600-member tribe. As a result, fewer people are receiving basic health care and authorities have had to cancel daily lunches for tribal elders.

In the meantime, tribes are trying to plan for the uncertain weeks ahead.

In Oklahoma, where Gov. Kevin Stitt was already demanding more money from tribal casinos before the pandemic as part of a simmering feud, the Cherokee Nation, the largest tribal nation in the U.S., is still paying its employees and planning to open parts of their gaming operations in early June.

But what that will look like remains unclear, said Brandon Scott, director of communications for the tribe. “I think it would be irresponsible of us to open the doors and go back to exactly the way we were,” he said.

“Tomorrow if we saw a huge spike in incidents in the state of Oklahoma, our plan would change dramatically.”

Already, the Navajo Nation has seen a serious spike, with a rate of 62 coronavirus deaths per 100,000 people. In New Mexico, which includes part of the Navajo reservation, Native Americans account for 57% of confirmed cases in the state, though they comprise only about 11% of the population.

A lack of basic infrastructure has further complicated thoughts of reopening. A business incubator on the Navajo Nation once offered internet access, tax-education seminars and workspace to dozens of tiny startups before being forced to shut down in March. Now, the lack of plumbing or running water in the group’s shared workspace poses a huge obstacle to its future.

“The virus is really showing years and years of neglect,” said Jessica Stago, a director of the incubator Change Labs. “Everything’s sort of collapsing at this point.”

Meanwhile, unemployment rates on some reservations that were 50% or higher during normal times have now soared to catastrophic levels, and tribal leaders worry that their budgets will be the last places in America to recover economically.

Scott Russell, a former tribal secretary of the Crow in eastern Montana, said the throngs of summertime tourists who come to boat and watch reenactments of the Battle of Little Bighorn was a critical source of revenue and jobs on the reservation. He said the tribe was preparing to open up, but it was unclear whether people would return.

“It’s a ripple effect we feel right down to our cafe,” Russell said.

The economic pain has been getting worse as people lose even the odd jobs and piecework that helped them pay bills. Cedar Rose Bulltail survived by selling handmade beadwork at indigenous art fairs, cooking fry bread for neighbors and making yarrow balm in the kitchen of her tiny rural home with no running water on the Crow Reservation.

Now, the festivals and fashion shows that were an economic lifeline have been canceled. Her 18-year-old daughter is back home from boarding school and straining to keep up with her schoolwork without any reliable internet connection. And with hand washing now an urgent health need, Bulltail’s hopes of saving enough money this summer to buy a new well pump to bring reliable, clean water into her house have been dashed.

“I just feel robbed,” Bulltail said.

As tribes measure the economic fallout, some leaders are hitting back at pressure from state and federal authorities to reopen. The demand by Kristi Noem, the Republican governor of South Dakota, that tribes remove checkpoints on roads has flared tempers around the country, showcasing how tension is building over what happens next in many tribal nations.

“Heads would roll if that kind of discussion were to happen in New Mexico,” said Rep. Derrick Lente, a Democratic state legislator and member of Sandia Pueblo, which operates a large casino and hotel complex on the outskirts of Albuquerque that has been closed for weeks.

“Tribal sovereignty needs to be respected if we’re to get back on our footing,” Lente said, citing the reach of tribal gaming operations. “You don’t do that by disrespecting tribal nations that have created thousands of jobs.”