Infrastructure bill means big things for Indian Country

By: - December 13, 2021 7:27 am

Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis, Salt River Indian Community President Martin Harvier and Ak-Chin Indian Community Chairman Robert Miguel gathered on Dec. 11 to discuss the way the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will benefit their communities. Photo via Gila River Indian Community

Infrastructure issues have plagued tribal communities for decades, and with federal funding finally coming into Indian Country from the the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, many Arizona tribal leaders are looking forward to what that means for their communities.

“Infrastructure needs differ among Arizona tribes, but the one thing all Arizona tribes have in common is that throughout this pandemic, we were battling decades, decades of underfunding that left our tribal communities extremely vulnerable during this time,” Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis said at a press conference Friday. “With this funding, we now have the ability to shore up our immediate infrastructure needs and begin to put long-term solutions in place.”

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The federal infrastructure spending measure has been called the single largest investment in tribal infrastructure, with more than $13 billion dollars in direct investments into Indian County.

“My community and tribal leaders across the country have been advocating for these sorts of federal investments for generations to pave our roads, modernize our water systems, enhance broadband connectivity, and generally help bring our communities into parity with those that border us,” said Ak-Chin Indian Community Chairman Robert Miguel. “We have constantly addressed these challenges ourselves with our own dollars.”

On Friday, Miguel and Lewis stood alongside the Salt River Indian Community President Martin Harvier to discuss some of the long standing issues their communities have faced and how they’ll finally be addressed.

“Each day, nearly 600,000 vehicles use the highways and roadways through our community in the fast-growing region here in the East Valley of the Phoenix metropolitan area,” Harvier said. 

“There is a great need to provide adequate maintenance to the existing infrastructure in the community, and to provide the necessary infrastructure improvements for our members within our community,” he added.

Harvier said the responsibility of maintaining transportation infrastructure is high, and historically tribes have received little federal support — but the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides a variety of funding opportunities, especially for infrastructure within tribal communities.

The spending plan includes measures that will make infrastructure investments spanning transportation, water, sanitation, energy, environmental restoration, telecommunications, and climate resiliency.

Harvier said the unpaved and dirt roads that run through tribal communities illustrate a common need that there is not enough money to meet the basic maintenance and the needs for current infrastructure.

“This is our story of a tribal community located next to one of the fastest growing regions in the country,” Harvier said. He’s hopeful that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will provide more opportunities for tribes located in urban and rural areas. 

“We know all tribal communities are challenged with locating enough resources for their much needed infrastructure,” he added.

Another important facet of the infrastructure plan is increasing broadband access within tribal nations. 

Tribal lands are some of the most digitally disconnected areas in the U.S.; roughly 1.5 million people lack basic broadband and wireless services, according to the FCC, and about 35% of those living on tribal lands lack broadband access.

Miguel said that the new law will deliver funds that will ensure tribal households have access to reliable high speed internet.

“The digital divide has hit Native communities the hardest, as our children have had to apply to colleges from McDonald’s parking lots because the connectivity to participate in the modern world hadn’t reached our communities,” Miguel added

Miguel called the $65 million dollars the infrastructure invests in expanding broadband a “game-changer.” 

“It will allow our residents to explore job opportunities and our students to be able to do their homework,” he said.” No one should have to drive tens of miles away to connect to the world. This funding will help us right that wrong.”

The three tribal leaders also praised the investment in water infrastructure: $2.5 billion for the Indian Water Rights Settlement Completion Fund.

“We have innovative plans in place that will utilize funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law,” Lewis said. 

The Gila River Indian Community hopes to start construction in 2022 on solar panel-covered canals as a new water conservation tool. 

“This tool will produce power or an irrigation system and help to conserve water by substantially reducing evaporation,” Lewis said.

Lewis also signed an Annual Funding Agreement with the United States Bureau of Reclamation during the event, which will provide nearly $72 million of new funding to accelerate the construction of the Pima Maricopa irrigation project. The project is part of the tribe’s water settlement with Congress in 2004. 

“This funding will help accelerate our irrigation project and help complete our water settlement,” Lewis said, and it’s coming at a time when investments in water are critical and much needed.

“Funding will allow us to complete large-scale long-term water projects while creating jobs in our community,” he said.

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Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues. Her digital, print and audio stories have been published by USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic, Navajo Times, The GroundTruth Project and PRX's "The World." Silversmith earned her master's degree in journalism and mass communication in Boston before moving back to Arizona to continue reporting stories on Indigenous communities. She is a member of the Native American Journalist Association and has made it a priority in her career to advocate, pitch and develop stories surrounding Indigenous communities in the newsrooms she works in.

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