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Why Native Americans are excited about the American Rescue Plan, and their future

Last month, Congress approved a record amount of money for Native American tribes in the American Rescue Plan. On Friday, First Lady Jill Biden spent the second of two days meeting with Navajo officials and hearing about their needs, after a devastating COVID-19 outbreak on the Navajo Nation last year. Stephanie Sy reports on what the future could look like for indigenous Americans.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last month, Congress approved a record amount of money for Native American tribes in the American Rescue Plan.

    Today, first lady Jill Biden spent the second of two days in Indian country, meeting with Navajo officials and hearing about their needs, after a devastating COVID-19 outbreak on the Navajo Nation last year.

    Stephanie Sy reports on what the potential future looks like for indigenous Americans.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, as we have been reporting throughout the pandemic, American Indians and Native Alaskans have been hit hard with a higher mortality rate than any other ethnic group in the United States.

    There are some positive signs now, a stretch of many days on the Navajo Nation where there has not been a single COVID-related death. More than half the residents are now vaccinated. Now tribal communities look forward to an infusion of resources. The COVID stimulus bill allocates $31 billion to serve them and includes $20 billion that goes directly to tribal governments, $6 billion to bolster health systems, and more than $1 billion for housing.

    To talk about why this money is needed, we're joined by Nick Tilsen from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He is the founder and CEO of NDN Collective and an activist for tribal rights over lands.

    Nick Tilsen, welcome back to the "NewsHour." It's good to have you.

    You have often talked about indigenous power. How much does this funding mean to you and other Native leaders, especially after this year of tremendous loss?

  • Nick Tilsen:

    This is a pretty monumentous step forward. You know, this is one of the biggest single investments that the federal government has ever made in history directly to indigenous people.

    And so it's a step in the right direction. And it's a realization that our advocacy and our efforts to be seen in society today and our struggles to be realized are things that need to be invested into.

    And so we're happy about the big investments going directly to tribes. We're happy about the investments to save the — to save Native languages. We're happy about the $1 billion investment into broadband and into some of, really, not just Native communities, but some of the most underinvested communities in the whole country.

    You take, like, this opportunity of $1 billion being invested into Navajo, but you also have 65,000 people at Navajo who don't have power. Is broadband going to affect those people right out of the gate?

    And so, I think that I think that there's an opportunity here to address long-term — long-term systematic things, like renewable energy in rural, isolated communities, to help — and help work towards building of more resilient communities altogether.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The federal government has held billions of dollars in trust to support tribal communities, but critics have often said they still do not get enough support.

    Does this funding, Nick Tilsen, help set up a future where Native communities might need to depend less on congressional appropriations?

  • Nick Tilsen:

    There's really no amount of money that the Congress can appropriate to fix its relationship with indigenous people.

    It actually has to change its relationship, because if the federal government changed its relationship to Native people and started focusing on a free and prior informed consent, what would end up happening is the entire relationship with tribal nations and sovereign nations would change, because you would no longer see things like pipelines built through our lands, or extractive industries built through our lands, or decisions made about indigenous people without our consent.

    And so I hope that this actually — that this investment begins to open a conversation about entering into a brand-new policy era.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You talked about renewable energy and sustainability on Native lands.

    Like other communities in America, the oil, gas and mining industries can mean jobs, and they also have those negative cultural and, in some cases, environmental impacts.

    What do you hear from other Native Americans about how they think about that issue?

  • Nick Tilsen:

    The reality is, the fossil fuel industry and the extractive industries have held indigenous communities economic hostage for the past 100 years, and have violated — violated federal policy, and have eroded indigenous people's rights.

    And so, to be quite honest, the jobs that exist in the fossil fuel industry is not the ones that we want in Indian country. And they have been few and far between. They have had very — little to no economic impact on our communities.

    When you can envision thousands of indigenous people on the ground working to steward their land and fight climate change and create a new economy that is actually one that is just and equitable, that's what excites me about the future.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You now have an insider. You have Deb Haaland, who is a Native American, the first to serve as a Cabinet secretary. She is secretary of the interior, which oversees federal lands.

    So, what are your hopes for her, now that she has a seat at the big table?

  • Nick Tilsen:

    I mean, our — Indian country is rallying around Deb Haaland. She's definitely from Indian country, represents Indian country, and it's an opportunity to have a voice at the table.

    And so some of the messages that we're sending is, we need to start thinking about turning — returning public lands, returning indigenous lands into indigenous hands. And that's what we talk a lot about in our Land Back movement. We want to see some movement on that.

    We also want to make sure that, in our dealings with the Department of Interior, that we end up actually moving to this era of consent. And I think that Deb Haaland is a big advocate for that.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Nick Tilsen, joining us from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

    Thank you so much for sharing your perspective, Nick.

  • Nick Tilsen:

    Absolutely. Thanks for having me on.

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