Indian Country Infrastructure

E.J. John

Policy & Research Analyst

President Biden announced the American Jobs Plan (AJP) on March 31, 2021 to address the longstanding needs facing the U.S. in the areas of infrastructure, jobs, and the economy. These needs existed before the pandemic, but their negative impact was felt much more in the last year. The great and immediate need to solve these issues also presents a unique opportunity to usher society into the future. The ideas that come to mind when one thinks of infrastructure are roads, railways, bridges, and other steel and concrete structures. However, the Biden administration is working to change that notion and expand the idea of infrastructure to include digital connectivity, mitigating the impacts of climate change, and promoting social equity. The AJP is shaping out to be a momentous first step to create a country-wide initiative for growth and development not seen since the New Deal.

In addition to government resources and training programs, the 1930s New Deal initiatives were a turning point in the relationship between Tribes and the Federal Government. The Indian Reorganization act of 1934 (IRA) was not perfect, but was the shift from the Federal Government’s assimilation policy to a greater recognition of Tribal sovereignty. The IRA was the beginning of many of today’s modern Tribal governments.

The AJP follows the same spirit of the New Deal era and marks the beginning of another significant development in the relationship between Tribes and the Federal Government. Like the New Deal, the AJP will address infrastructure needs through large impactful initiatives such as:

  1. Repairing 20,000 miles of road and 10,000 smaller bridges that include critical access ways to Tribal and rural communities.

  2. Making Tribes eligible for $25 billion to support ambitious projects that have tangible benefits to the regional or national economy.

  3. Providing transition and relocation assistance to the most vulnerable Tribal communities  affected by climate change-related weather events.

  4. Making Tribes eligible for $56 billion in grants to invest in rural small water systems.

  5. Ensuring that funds are set aside for broadband infrastructure on Tribal lands, and that Tribes are consulted in program administration in the effort to reach 100% broadband coverage in the U.S.

  6. Supporting Tribes who want to accelerate their power infrastructure modernization through clean energy block grants.

  7. $16 billion to plug orphan oil and gas wells and to clean up abandoned mines.

  8. $5 billion to help Tribal nations build on their unique assets and realize their vision for inclusive community and economic development.

The overall tone of the AJP is one of collaboration and partnership to achieve these goals, but the specific details and full text of the plan have yet to be introduced. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) is another significant piece of legislation that made a historic $31.2 billion investment into Indian Country to address the needs caused by the pandemic. ARPA provided important resources for Tribes to address economic issues, broadband connectivity, healthcare, and housing. The ARPA funding formula also has yet to be finalized, but the U.S. Treasury Department and other Federal agencies are holding numerous Tribal consultations on the best way to utilize funding for Tribal communities. This ongoing communication indicates a newfound willingness and respect for Tribal sovereignty moving forward, and should carry on to discussions on the AJP as well. 

Tribal nations and their partner organizations have long advocated for the outstanding needs facing Indian country. In a letter dated April 13, 2021 many of these organizations outlined the most  pressing issues that Congress must address. They cover a wide range of topics including infrastructure, healthcare, housing, and law enforcement. Here are some of the needs as outlined by the letter:

  1. $21 billion for new healthcare facilities.

  2. $48 billion to fully fund the Indian Health Service (IHS).

  3. $3.5 billion specifically for Tribal governments in the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund.

  4. $200 million for water infrastructure.

  5. $10 billion in additional funding towards the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Grant Program.

  6. $1 billion for Tribal energy grant programs.

  7. $33 billion for Tribal housing programs.

  8. $11 billion for Tribal Transportation Program.

  9. $1 billion for law enforcement infrastructure.

  10. Enact legislation for a Carcieri-fix for Tribes to have the ability to restore their homelands.

  11. $42 billion for Tribal climate resilience and adaptation.

  12. $2.6 billion to replace schools and other facilities at Bureau of Indian Education-funded (BIE) schools.

This abbreviated list only provides a glimpse of the needs throughout Indian Country. However the ARPA and AJP are working on a few of these areas such as water infrastructure, healthcare, broadband connectivity, and housing. The needs are vast and that is why important initiatives such as ARPA and AJP are often described as a “down payment” and a first step to the Federal Government fulfilling their long standing trust obligations to Tribal communities.

In addition to the resources needed to address areas of need, this letter also outlines the manner in which any assistance to Indian Country should be implemented. The letter’s important points on implementation are as follows:

  1. Funding be provided directly to Tribal recipients.

  2. Indirect costs must be eligible for use of the funds.

  3. Tribes must have optimal flexibility regarding the use of funds.

  4. Funds should be available until they are expended.

  5. Funds should not be subject to competitive grants or match requirements.

  6. Any legislation should be construed to be applied liberally in favor of Tribes and in a manner that does not infringe upon Tribal sovereignty.

The letter’s points on implementation are an accurate summary of Tribal input on the new resources made available over the last few months. If these points on implementation materialize,this would mark a significant shift in the relationship between Tribes and the Federal Government. It would be an important first step towards a true government-to-government relationship that Tribes have worked towards since European contact. We at AIPI will continue to provide updates as more information becomes available.