April 2020 Update – Letter to MA Legislators regarding COVID-19

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While many bills including our own have been stalled at the MA legislature due to the coronavirus pandemic, members of the MA Indigenous Agenda wrote to Massachusetts legislators in early April to flag some Indigenous-specific issues related to the COVID-19 crisis. We are continuing to follow up with state legislators and the MA congressional delegation and press for these concerns to be addressed in public health and pandemic legislation. Below is a copy of the letter that we sent.

Esteemed Leadership of the Massachusetts Legislature,

As we respond to the global containment efforts of COVID-19, the coalition for the Massachusetts Indigenous Legislative Agenda is calling for a targeted response to support the 50,000 American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) residents of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Department of Correction Employment Application defines a person being AI/AN as, “A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) who maintains cultural identification through tribal affiliation or community attachment.” The definition includes people outside of the federal definitions of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act and The Immigration and Nationality Act. Despite this inclusive definition, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts inconsistently reports data on its AI/AN residents. Consultation with tribal governments, tribal organizations, and urban Indian organizations is required to address these systemic issues.

Nationally, over 70% of the AI/AN people live in urban areas and rely on social services from urban Indian organizations and health providers outside of the federal Indian Health Service (IHS) system. In reporting of COVID-19 cases in the Commonwealth, demographic data reported by Massachusetts Department of Public Health has only included: county, sex, and age group. Lack of ethnic data contributes to underreporting of impacts of this disease for AI/AN residents. Because tribes are sovereign entities which reserve the right to determine their own membership, it is important to distinguish AI/AN status. Otherwise, the Commonwealth artificially reduces populations by not including residents who identify as AI/AN. We demand that the Department of Public Health compile and release ethnic data distinguishing AI/AN status in future reports of cases.

Additionally, there are bills proposed in response to the pandemic which offer opportunities to address systemic inconsistencies on the state-level. These are selected from bills you may currently sponsor or co-sponsor:

HD.4963 An Act regarding decarceration and COVID-19

  • The Committee for Public Counsel Services neither has a dedicated unit nor significant expert vendors targeting AI/AN families and individuals. We demand increased resources from and participation with CPCS.
  • The Department of Correction in the Commonwealth must address inconsistencies when accepting applications for employment and reporting on inmate populations, parolees, and recidivism. It is unclear whether persons in the correctional system who are reported as African American or Hispanic may also be reported as AI/AN under a consistent definition. We demand data equity in correctional system data to ensure equitable decarceration rates.

HD.4978 An Act providing for cash assistance to certain persons over 65 years of age who stopped working as a result of COVID-19 or stay-at-home advisory (The CARE Act)

  • The CARE Act directs the secretary of administration and finance to establish a hotline for certain persons over 65 years of age who stopped working as a result of COVID-19. This is not an intentional form of outreach towards AI/AN elders and families who are disproportionately impacted by poverty levels. We demand an intentional effort to care for AI/AN elders through funding for community liaisons and outreach specialists.

HD.4950 An Act providing emergency access to equity and justice for all in response to COVID-19

  • Establishment of an Equity and Justice for All portal relies on a solution which is unresponsive to AI/AN communities who are disproportionately impacted by the digital divide. Coordination with tribal and urban Indian Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act programs through funding for outreach and administration would deliver resources to AI/AN persons and AI/AN-owned small businesses in need. We demand an intentional effort for equity and justice for all through funding for community liaisons and outreach specialists.
  • Access to the “Small Business Recovery Grant Fund” for Massachusetts-based businesses impacted by COVID-19 requires no more than 26 full-time and part-time employees. This does not account for minority-owned and women-owned businesses as defined under the affirmative marketing program. Distribution goals to target small businesses including those owned by AI/AN people must be set in consultation with The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. We demand equity for minority and women owned small businesses, specifically those owned by AI/AN people.
  • The current permanency plans prescribed by the Department of Children and Families in its Family Assessment and Action Planning Policy do not include consideration consistent with the Indian Child Welfare Act. Placement in extended families and within tribal communities is critical to the well-being of AI/AN youth. We demand that the Department of Children and Families center the Indian Child Welfare Act in its Family Assessment and Action Planning Policy.

Beyond these issues, we remain committed to advocacy of the full Massachusetts Indigenous Legislative Agenda. This is our concern for the current state of the bills:

Regarding the mascot bill, we are deeply concerned that the Joint Education Committee weakened this bill by amending the text. Instead of clearly prohibiting the use of Native American mascots in the Commonwealth, the amended bill now provides “no public school uses an athletic team name, mascot, or logo which denigrates any racial, ethnic, gender, or religious group.” This new language severely weakens the bill. First, the word “denigrates” will cause confusion because it is too subjective (especially since many non-Native people believe that these mascots “honor” Native people). Second, the phrase “any racial, ethnic, gender, or religious group” is overly broad and contradicts the purpose and name of the bill, which is focused specifically on Native American mascots. Lastly, the Joint Committee also removed paragraph 5 of the original bill, which recognized that Native tribal nations with their own sports teams should have the ability to choose their own mascots without limitation, as part of their right to self-determination. We call on the Massachusetts State legislators to amend the language of Bill S.2593 “An Act Prohibiting the Use of Native American Mascots by Public Schools in the Commonwealth” back to its original language.

Regarding the Flag and Seal bill, please continue to support this crucial, long delayed racial justice legislation (S.1877 and H.2776). The bill has been reported favorably out of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, to the Senate, but its present committee standing remains unclear. We point out that the legislation to set up a special commission with Native leaders and legislators to change the racist state flag and seal of Massachusetts – with its depiction of a white hand holding a sword over a Native person – has been continuously stalled in the Massachusetts legislature for 34 years, without passage. The current legislation has gained 39 legislative co-sponsors and also has received affirmative resolutions of support from 39 annual town meetings and city councils, from the Berkshires to Cape Cod. To improve the climate for Native people in the Commonwealth, and promote harmony between all the people who live here now, we urge you to work to move this legislation forward to final passage this year – the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower. The MA Indigneous Agenda continues to strongly advocate for passage of this bill, and we ask your help to determine the present status of the bill and to work together with us to move it forward to passage in the current legislative session.

Regarding S.1811/H.2948 “An Act to protect Native American Heritage”, the House version of this bill was placed in the Orders of the Day for the next sitting of House Steering, Policy and Scheduling for a second reading. Since October 2019, we have not had an update on this bill. No vote out, favorable or otherwise, has been recorded by State Administration and Regulatory Oversight since testimony was heard for the Senate version in November 2019. Protection of sacred objects (religious, funerary objects and human remains) remains a priority for the MA Indigenous Legislative Agenda coalition.

Finally, our coalition wishes to express solidarity with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. The United States Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt notified tribal government on March 27, 2020 of his move to disestablish their reservation and take it out of trust. We call on each of you to sign the online #StandWithMashpee petition (https://sign.moveon.org/petitions/stand-with-the-mashpee).

We further call on the Massachusetts Legislature to pass a resolution of support for HR312 Mashpee Wampanoag Reservation Reaffirmation Act.

Sincerely,

Jean-Luc Pierite (Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana), President, North American Indian Center of Boston
Mahtowin Munro, United American Indians of New England (UAINE) & MA Indigenous Agenda
David Detmold, ChangeTheMassFlag.com
Cole Harrison, Executive Director, Massachusetts Peace Action
Heather Leavell, co-founder, Italian Americans for Indigenous Peoples Day
Linda Thomas, Steering Committee, Mass Mascot Coalition
Hillary Turkewitz, Co-Chair, Indigenous Peoples Advocacy Committee of the Network for Social Justice