WASHINGTON (CN) – Fires, floods and poisoned farmlands are disasters laid at the feet of the American Indian. Members of Congress heard Wednesday that emergency response is slow, frustration grows and many tribal lands are in shambles.
"Native peoples who serve in the military are the highest ratio of every ethnic minority, and our peoples have fought and died in defense of this nation as well," said Robert Holden, deputy director at the National Congress of American Indians.
Addressing the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Holden said his people deserve access to resources and funding that address fallout from natural or manmade disasters.
Intended as a review of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's relationship with Indian tribes, the hearing Wednesday revealed a history of miscommunication and bureaucratic delays in the face of destruction.
Russell Begaye offered the committee a look at the desperate state of affairs plaguing the Navajo Nation, of which he is the president.
"We saw the water that flows into our nation turn as yellow as orange juice," Begaye said.
The yellow water resulted from a 3 million gallon spill at the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, in 2015. Workers from the Environmental Protection Agency released toxic waste water from the mine into the Animas River as they attempted to drain water from another nearby mine.
Over $1.2 billion in claims were filed against the Environmental Protection Agency for the spill. The EPA announced last month that it would not pay for anything, however, since the Federal Tort Claims Act prevents the agency from paying claims that result from "discretionary" government action.
The Animas runs 200 miles through Navajo Nation. Begaye told senators he worked to have nearby irrigation systems turned off on surrounding farmlands that rely on the water. Only 200 Navajo Nation employees came to assist, he said, and no FEMA employee was on the ground.
After completing emergency declaration and financial assistance applications, Begaye received a terse rejection letter.
FEMA said its agency was told "not to get involved" since emergency assistance, in this case, fell under the EPA's jurisdiction. Meeting with representatives from agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Begaye was left empty-handed.
"None of these agencies came alongside the Navajo Nation to help us,” he said. “That needs to change.”
With livelihoods hanging in the balance, and no compensation for any farmers, Begaye said he has just one question of FEMA now.
"When is it disastrous enough for FEMA to come help?" he said.
Michael Chavarria, governor of the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, has endured similar frustrations with FEMA since 2011. The sweeping Las Conchas wildfire that year, and the flooding that followed, wiped out water infrastructure and roads, destroyed fishing habitats, and damaged cultural sites throughout the region.
Santa Clara has undergone presidential disaster declarations five times in five years: three at the request of the state of New Mexico, a separate entity from the Pueblo, and two directly by the Pueblo.
Unlike Begaye , Chavarria saw some engagement from FEMA. The agency's National Disaster Recovery Framework program has worked with Santa Clara since 2013, coordinating recovery efforts across multiple federal agencies.
While the feds help maneuver through bureaucracy, another FEMA program, the Tribal Declarations Pilot Guidance, has flipped the dynamic. The pilot puts FEMA second, defer first to the tribe for insight onto the land and what ecological or cultural sensitivities exist.
While the deference is welcome, the relief feels short lived. The threat of flash flooding persists, Chavarria reminded the committee. Further, the financial burden may be too much for the cash-strapped tribe to bear by itself.
Under FEMA rules, Santa Clara is responsible for 12.5 percent of the recovery cost for three of its presidential disaster declarations. The other two declarations force the tribe to meet 25 percent of the cost.
"While FEMA covers the 75 percent remaining, with five declarations, that means Santa Clara is responsible for tens of millions of dollars, placing a burden on tribal budgets which have taken away from other social programs," Chavarria said. "We must adjust cost-yield thresholds to be responsive to the needs of the tribe."
Cody Desautel, the natural resources director of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Nespelem, Washington, has seen wildfires burn 256,000 acres there. Torching nearly 25 percent of commercial timber lands belonging to the tribe, the Colville find themselves in dire straits.
FEMA must revisit appropriations and priorities, Desautel said.
"Catastrophic wildfire should be treated differently by FEMA,” he said. “In the next few years, Colville will replace trees burned and its only dedicated funding source is the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”
While the bureau is obligated to replant forests, only $3.4 million is budgeted for the effort.
"Our request was for $20 million. This would cover planting of less than 11,000 acres for all tribes," Desautel said.
Alex Amparo, assistant administrator for FEMA's response and recovery office, tread delicately throughout the hearing, only reassuring the committee that the agency is committed to developing solutions for disaster recovery efforts in Indian country.
Explanations for the agency's lethargy went largely unanswered. President Begaye expressed his appreciation of the FEMA pilot and commended programs like it.
But if FEMA gets too bogged down in the paperwork, Begaye says a simple concept may run right past the agency.
"We don't know what the right answers are or what the right language is ... we just need FEMA to help those people losing homes, vehicles, farms, crops and jobs,” he said. “We need them to treat us as human beings.”
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.