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Native American tribes push to get Biden's infrastructure bill passed

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Native American tribes are calling on Congress to swiftly pass the sweeping infrastructure bill. Tribal leaders expect it to include about $11 billion for Indian Country, which they hope will begin to address historical inequities there. On this Indigenous Peoples' Day, NPR's Kirk Siegler takes a closer look at what tribes want to do with the money.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: For Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin, the infrastructure bill isn't just about helping Indian Country. It's about modernizing rural areas in states like Oklahoma, long passed over by more influential cities.

CHUCK HOSKIN JR: When tribes win in terms of these kinds of investments, rural America wins.

SIEGLER: The Cherokee Nation is one of Northeast Oklahoma's largest employers with 11,000 workers, including some nontribal members. And Hoskin says there are a number of road and bridge repair projects the tribe has identified for upgrades, and people are ready to get to work. The Cherokee are also eager to add more electric buses to their fleet. In the reservation's more isolated communities, that's a vital link for tribal members to do everything from shopping to doctor's appointments.

HOSKIN: We need to grow in Indian Country. We need our economies moving. If the United States wants to live up to its promise, this is a great way to do it. And really, Congress ought to get busy doing this.

SIEGLER: That promise Chief Hoskin is talking about is U.S. treaty obligations. The U.S. government pledged to deliver basic needs such as health care and education when they forced tribes onto reservations and took their ancestral lands. Hoskin says the government has never truly lived up to these treaties.

HOSKIN: 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.

SIEGLER: The infrastructure bill in its current iteration would put about 3.5 billion toward what tribes say has been the chronically underfunded Indian Health Service. Over the years, the struggling IHS was also charged with maintaining water sanitation systems. Some tribal lands still don't have clean drinking water. The bill could also boost broadband development on the order of about $1 billion for tribes. Traci Morris runs the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University.

TRACI MORRIS: These are all drop in the bucket to what we need, but they're a good down payment.

SIEGLER: Morris, a Chickasaw tribal member, says the pandemic shined a glaring light on how shoddy the internet is on rural reservations. People in more isolated communities couldn't connect to telehealth or other critical services, which she says worsened the pandemic's death toll. Amid the ongoing political stalemate over the bill in Congress, Morris is trying to take the long view. She's encouraged to see Native people starting to get a seat at the table, beginning with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the nation's first Indigenous Cabinet official.

MORRIS: Cultural changes are happening. And the laws and everything else are struggling to keep up, but they are inching forward because we're changing as a nation.

SIEGLER: Chipping away at what Morris calls the systemic inequities in Indian Country will take time. And she says the infrastructure bill with more historic funding for tribes is a start.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.