Vice President Kamala Harris visited Arizona on Thursday to discuss special advantages her administration has given and plans to give to Native Americans.
The trip marked Harris’ first visit to Indian country, according to the Gila River Tribal Nation’s opening remarks during the event.
Harris called the tribal nation’s reliance on a federal assistance leasing program a “symbol of sovereignty.” The vice president further declared that the federal government retains responsibility to ensure tribal members are successful.
“President Biden and I also believe that we have a duty to address the deep disparities that persist across Indian country. Disparities that are the result, and truth must be spoken,” said Harris. “Disparities are the result of centuries of broken treaties, harmful assimilation policies, displacement, dispossession and violence,. We have a duty to ensure that all Native people have the opportunity to thrive.”
Harris further said it was the federal government’s responsibility to ensure economic opportunity and success to Native communities through home and small business loans, as well as lines of credit. The vice president cited their administration’s investment of over $500 million into Native American entrepreneurs and small business, and hundreds of millions into community banks.
Harris characterized the Native Americans as “stewards” of the environment for “millennia.”
This mass characterization conflicts with certain realities, especially in recent American history. Native Americans played a role in causing the near-extinction of buffalo with their hunting practices, which included driving mass herds of buffalo off cliffs or killing hundreds at a time just to harvest small parts, like tongues.
(A widespread claim blames professional hunters wishing to eradicate Native Americans for decimating the bison population in the 19th century; however, research shows that the near-extinction was caused by mass disease, triggered by the reduction of bisons’ natural population managers: humans.)
Consequently, Harris revealed that the federal government would invest billions into “climate-resilient infrastructure projects” led only by Native American individuals.
“In order to create enduring solutions to the climate crisis, we must then rely on the knowledge and the experience of Native communities,” said Harris.
Harris claimed that Native Americans’ voting rights remain in jeopardy, citing remarks made in a meeting with activist Allie Young and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.
The pair alleged the threats concern the distance it takes to reach polling places, and the denial of tribal land IDs when voting. Harris called for two weeks of early voting, an increased number of dropboxes, and same-day automatic voter registration.
Harris also shared that the federal government is working to install voter registration sites in Indian Health Services locations.
The vice president also touched on the federal government’s internet infrastructure initiative. Native Americans receive a special deal on internet access through the Biden administration’s arrangement: up to $75 off per month, versus only $30 off for non-tribal households.
The Biden administration has consistently focused on equity-focused treatment of Native Americans in issuing federal funding. Last year, the administration awarded $261,000 for a regional study of 16 miles of a pedestrian and bicycle pathway, and nearly $25 million to the Colorado Indian River Tribes to reconstruct 10 miles of road.
Northern Arizona University (NAU) will provide free tuition regardless of income to Native Americans from Arizona tribes but requires other races to fall below a certain financial threshold to qualify. NAU President José Luis Cruz Rivera described the arrangement as a cornerstone for the university’s equity work.
“Ensuring access to an affordable, high-quality education is a key part of NAU’s vision to deliver equitable postsecondary value,” stated Cruz Rivera.
This arrangement falls under NAU’s financial aid program “Access2Excellence” (A2E) which launched last April. However, the university didn’t offer this free tuition for Arizona tribal members until last November, after NAU’s Native American Advisory Board pushed for its creation.
Initially, A2E was intended to provide tuition-free college for all students, regardless of race, if their household incomes were at or below $65,000. When A2E launched last spring, approximately 50 percent of Arizona households met that threshold.
NAU stated in a press release that the special free tuition offer for Native American students was part of its “strategic priority” to be the leading university serving Indigenous people nationwide. Ann Marie Chischilly, vice president of the Office for Native American Initiatives, said that this offering represented NAU’s commitment to prioritizing Native Americans.
“We are dedicated to being the nation’s leading institution serving the indigenous peoples and providing a clear and affordable pathway to an exceptional education,” said Chischilly.
Free tuition is one of the latest in NAU’s latest initiatives focused on uplifting Native Americans. In January, NAU pledged $10 million to prioritize Native American and Indigenous people in curriculum and recruitment efforts.
Last March, NAU launched multiple initiatives totaling $1.3 million to increase the number of both Native American and Hispanic science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) graduates. These initiatives focus on training STEM faculty in anti-racism, revising graduate admissions processes to increase inclusivity and diversity, creating additional supports exclusively for Indigenous and Hispanic students, offering exclusive campus opportunities for Indigenous and Hispanic students’ families.
Department of Biological Sciences professor Catherine Propper predicted that these initiatives would increase anti-racist educational practices in education beyond NAU.
“In this way, we can bring about equity-oriented change in STEM fields by building leadership among faculty to contribute to institutional change, eliminate structural barriers and reduce disproportionality and systemic inequities in STEM fields,” said Propper.
Cruz Rivera asserted that greater funding and research efforts for recruitment, training, and placement on Native American and Hispanic students was an equitable necessity to spur these groups’ economic mobility.
“Together, we can propel more low-income, first-generation students and students of color to the middle-class and beyond,” said Cruz Rivera. “Support for HSIs will pave the way for less inequality, more social mobility and broader economic prosperity in America.”
In June 2021, the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) awarded NAU with $1 million to advance culturally responsive Native American pre-K-12 educators.
The A2E program goes into effect this fall. Those admitted to NAU for fall 2023 or spring 2024 semesters qualify.