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How Biden’s Infrastructure Bill Provides Funds for Long Awaited Improvements in Native Communities

After months of tumultuous debate and restructuring in the United States Congress, President Joe Biden’s one trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, dubbed "The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act", passed on 5 November 2021. The bill, which was officially signed into law on 15 November, is a victory for the administration as it has been heralded as a once-in-a-generation spending package. The bill provides Native American communities with US$ 31 billion (around $23 billion) in an effort to address some of the glaring infrastructure-based inequities they face, namely; access to clean water, internet access and road safety.

Aging pipes have limited access to clean water for some Native American communities. Four years ago at the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon, a broken valve left the entire population without safe, running water. In response, residents were taught to boil water to purify it. Each day, members of the community would pick up bottles of water to avoid drinking water from the tap which was oftentimes brown and non-potable.

Krystal Curley, Executive Director of the Native-led non-profit Indigenous Lifeways, delivers canned water to the native communities surrounding her home in Gallup, New Mexico. Curley says:

"I just want for my community to have jobs, to have a roof over their head, to have clean water and clean energy… For so long, so many generations, we had to live without all of that".

Many of these infrastructure-related inequities were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic as people were laid off or forced to work and attend school from home. With increased power shortages and a lack of internet connection, some students had to drive to their nearest gas station just to access cell service and WiGi to attend class and complete their homework.

As the bill has been officially signed into law, many members of the community are cautiously optimistic that their quality of life will improve. Senators have allocated US$ 250 million (approximately GBP 187 million) to the Warm Springs Reservation specifically for the expansion of clean water infrastructure. Others are hopeful that the bill is a significant step towards healing relations between Native communities and the government. However, considering the damage done by decades of dismal funding, resulting in sub-par infrastructure, some remain skeptical. |It looks like a lot, but it goes fast," remarked Dot Thurby, overseer of water distribution on the Warm Springs Reservation.

When discussing the proposed infrastructure bill, Chuck Hoskin Jr., Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation since 2019, said in an interview with National Public Radio that:

"People need to know that right now in Indian Country, there are people that are suffering, that are doing without, that are living in situations that most Americans would say is not acceptable. They just don't know about it".

The lack of basic infrastructure requirements in Native communities is a small part of the economic reality for the population. Due in part to the fact that these communities have been systematically denied basic infrastructure needs, Native American reservations have disproportionately high rates of poverty compared to the rest of the country. According to the Northwestern Institute for Policy Research, as of 2020, one in three Native Americans currently living in the United States live below the poverty line.

The bill will ultimately do little to solve long-term poverty within reservations which have their roots in the United State’s colonial past where Native Americans were seen as unable to participate in the "modern markets" of 19th Century capitalism. The federal government now manages most reservation land with the natives holding only about 5 percent. This lack of autonomy harshly limits their ability to manage much of their own land and energy.

Nevertheless, the bill holds immense, historic significance for Native American communities. When Native Americans were forced onto reservations, the United States government made a false promise to communities that their basic needs - such as access to health care, clean water and transportation - would be met. Biden’s infrastructure bill is by no means a "cure-all" for the infrastructure inequities faced by so many Native communities but it is a step in the right direction toward sealing the promises of the past.


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