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Navajo Nation President on election: "People wanted change"

The President of the Navajo Nation, Jonathan Fez, speaks to Yahoo Finance's Kristin Myers and Sibile Marcellus about the impact of the elections on indigenous peoples.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: The disparities facing tribal communities have been brought into sharp relief by the coronavirus pandemic, with cases surging in tribal communities. Take the Navajo Nation, which spreads across parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. More than 13,000 residents have tested positive for the virus. That's all according to the Navajo Nation Department of Health.

A three-week shutdown began there on Monday. Here to talk to us about this crisis and more is president of the Navajo Nation, Jonathan Nez. Jonathan, thank you so much for joining us. We've been seeing alarming statistics of how badly the pandemic is impacting the Navajo Nation. You called it the invisible monster.

We've talked often about how this pandemic is exposing existing disparities. And so I wanted to highlight one here, and this is on life expectancy. According to the Indian Health Service, life expectancy for American Indians and Alaskan Natives is 5 and 1/2 years shorter than that of other Americans. How are you seeing these disparities impacting your community as we see these surges, these coronavirus cases spiking around the country?

JONATHAN NEZ: Well, thank you, Kristin, for having us on your show. You know, we are dealing with this monster that has snuck in to our homes, in our communities, and our nation. And you can see that happening all across the country here with record breaking numbers.

And so, if you're a small community, more like an island of this country, you know, of course, you'll have some impact from what's happening off our Nation. And let me just say to that there have been 8,011 people who have recovered from the virus. And that's what we've been tracking here on the Navajo Nation.

But, yes, we do have a large percentage of the most vulnerable population here. You know, we have high rates of diabetes, heart disease, cancer. And, you know, with our elders having these types of illnesses, you know, we're doing our very best to protect our most vulnerable, and protect our way of life, and our culture, and tradition. That's usually in our elders as wisdom, and we try to hand out down to our younger generation as well.

KRISTIN MYERS: So I want to pick up on what you were saying about the future and passing on legacies, passing on traditions because I have a couple other stats here about some of the inequities facing Native Americans. The unemployment rates and poverty rates are higher for Native Americans than their Black, white, and Hispanic counterparts. Median household income, just over $40,000-- now, that's lower than that of Black, white, and Hispanic households.

As you're mentioning it, the coronavirus clearly is one. But what are you seeing as some of, you know, the biggest threats to the future and to the prosperity of not just the Navajo Nation but other tribal nations as well?

JONATHAN NEZ: Well, Kristin, there are 574 nations, distinct tribal communities throughout the United States of America. And we are the biggest Nation, 27,000 square miles, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona, and half of our population of 350,000 Navajos, half, live off the Navajo Nation. So there is a lot of visiting happening, and our contact tracers have identified that the spread of the virus is coming from social and family gatherings.

And I think that's the same throughout the country. And, of course, we didn't make that poverty line. Somebody else made the poverty line. So but there are a lot of people that are content and are OK with the way of life. But, of course, with the population not having water, I think 30%, 40% of our Navajo people don't have running water or electricity.

Of course, this pandemic thrives on that type of statistic. And, if you're getting information from CDC or NIH, telling you to wash your hands with soap and water and you don't have running water, it's going to be very difficult for taking care of yourself or personal hygiene.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: You know, looking at the elections recently, Indigenous voters had a significant impact in delivering a victory for Biden in both Wisconsin and Arizona. What is it about his platform that really appealed to Indigenous voters?

JONATHAN NEZ: Well, I think, throughout the country, people wanted change. People wanted to move away from this divisive rhetoric and this type of encouragement of discrimination and to really move forward in healing. I mean, we're-- we pride ourselves in this country for being the melting pot, but yet the first citizen of this land, of this country has always been pushed aside since we got into these agreements with the Federal government.

And, from then on, it's just been broken promises. But we did get a glimpse of the partnership and a really good partnership that we've had with President-elect Biden when he was the vice president. When the Obama and Biden administration was there, we were able to go to the White House. And the door was open about, you know, how we could collaborate and fulfill these commitments that were made.

I think Native Americans have always fulfilled our promises that were made by these treaties. And as you know, per capita, Native Americans, of any ethnic group throughout this country, have served the armed forces. And there's some great stories of our people, such as the Navajo Code Talkers, and so I just want to also remind everybody the 574 tribes throughout the country have contributed greatly to the freedoms of this country and probably democracy all over the world.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: And you mentioned that you actually worked with Biden back during Obama's administration. So what are your top priorities for Biden this time around?

JONATHAN NEZ: You know, I mean, the priorities are all across this country. I think we all want better infrastructure, right? We want water. We want electricity, telecommunication and broadband, better roads. Rebuild some of these bridges.

These are the commonalities that we can all, I think, agree upon this country of ours. And I think, more so, there needs to be a lot more attention in tribal communities. And I hope, you know, the next four years will bring some positive change and to improve the quality of life for the First Peoples of this country.

KRISTIN MYERS: Jonathan, you just mentioned-- and you were highlighting all of the contributions that Native Americans have made to this country. And yet representation in Congress is still lacking. Although we have had a record number of Native Americans elected to Congress this year in the 2020 elections-- so there is a treaty not-- with the Cherokee Nation, essentially, that they should have a delegate inside of Congress. I'm wondering if you think that the Navajo Nation, the Cherokee Nation, perhaps some other larger tribal communities should have direct representation in Congress with a delegate.

JONATHAN NEZ: Well, not just a delegate, but I think there is going to be a time in the near future just like Deb Haaland did to where a Native American person-- I'm hopeful that the Navajo Nation will one day see one of their own, son or daughter, in the halls of Congress and being elected by the people. And, you know, we have a chance in this coming redistricting based on the 2020 census that occurred.

KRISTIN MYERS: I wanted to ask you about something that we talk a lot about with the Black community, which is reparations. And it has-- a small amount of reparations was paid out to Native Americans, although it was paternalistic in its rollout. And the number was incredibly low.

This is something that we have been discussing quite a bit, not just on this show, but we've heard Democratic presidential candidates talking about this. I'm wondering if you think that more needs to be done in terms of addressing the really cruel history that Native Americans have had to face inside of this country and if that, you know,f addressing those issues needs to come with some financial compensation.

JONATHAN NEZ: Well, I think-- just look at what happened with the reporting during the election with the exit polling, with CNN calling other ethnic groups and nationalities in this country something else. And I think it's time for the something-else category to bind together and to remind this country of ours that we are great contributors to this country. And I think, you know, we just want, of course, our share of resources.

And look at what happened during declares that CARES Act funding that was supposed to be approved-- or supposed to go out in relief funds to the people of this country. And the rest of the states, counties, and municipalities were able to utilize those CARES Act funds immediately. But 574 tribes had wait months, and we even had to, you know, petition a lawsuit in to the federal government to get our share of resources.

And I hope people understand that, you know-- and people do come and ask, how can we help right now? I think we can all let our congressional leaders know that we should-- this country should fulfill its promises to Indian country.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: And, obviously, getting a stimulus package is very important. And climate change has been made by Biden as one of his top priorities. How much of an impact would that have? And what do you hope to seek from Biden's administration on that issue?

JONATHAN NEZ: Well, I think that there should be more Native Americans appointed to the offices in the Federal government. I think people could benefit from our way of life teaching and some of the teaching that has been handed down from generation to generations and utilize that to be better stewards of our land.