As reopenings across the country begin, the impacts of COVID-19 continue to threaten the economies of Native American governments, including the Seneca Nation here in Western New York.
Many tribes rely on casinos and other Native-owned businesses to fund services and capital improvements, but how soon those enterprises bounce back is uncertain. Of particular concern are casinos and their related bars, restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues, as those industries across the county are expected to recover slowly from the impacts of COVID-19.
That imperils the economic pillars of the Seneca Nation of Indians, three casinos run by the Seneca Nation Gaming Corp., a tribally-chartered corporation. The nation, a sovereign government with 7,800 enrolled members, or tribal citizens, owns five reservations in Western New York, including the acreage for its Buffalo and Niagara Falls casinos. Its Cattaraugus County territory includes the City of Salamanca, which the nation describes as “only city in the world entirely on an Indian reservation.”
According to nation President Rickey Armstrong, Sr., the gaming facilities make up 71 percent of his government’s funding. Armstrong, in a prepared statement, called the pandemic an “unprecedented” situation.
“Economically, the impact has undoubtedly been very severe,” he said.
Seneca leaders decided to reduce payments made to enrolled members of the tribe from $700 to $500 a month. It’s something John Kane, a longtime activist and radio broadcaster, said was once considered political “suicide.”
“The idea that that happened gives you a sense for the level of concern that they have,” Kane said.
Armstrong wouldn’t say whether the payments have been restored, but noted the pandemic had “forced” the government to “adjust some of those benefits.”
“Our members understand the necessity of prioritizing health and safety, as well as the need to preserve our long-term financial stability at this time,” he said.
Joseph Kalt, a Harvard University faculty member and the co-director of its Project on American Indian Economic Development, said the establishment of Native enterprises to fund services, like the casinos, has largely improved conditions on tribal lands.
Kalt said he’s confident the communities will economically rebound, but he cautioned it may be a “painful process.” He has compared the situation in scope and speed to white colonists’ annihilation of bison herds on North American grasslands in the 19th century.
“It’s a very abrupt decimation of tribal economies,” he told Investigative Post.
Response to the pandemic
Seneca leaders have taken many of the same steps on their territory in Cattaraugus and Allegany counties as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has for New York State. Among them was the decision to close Seneca casinos March 16.
Early in the pandemic, Armstrong said the nation limited outside visitation to its territory and convened a COVID-19 task force with various government officials.
“This has been a widespread effort that has touched every facet of life on our territories, from health care and housing to protecting our elders,” he said.
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Communication to members of the Seneca Nation was difficult, the president said. Members are scattered across a large geographic area and use various platforms to receive information. Armstrong said, at times, people were sent door-to-door to spread health and safety news.
“The lack of communications infrastructure, particularly on our Cattaraugus territory, has never been more evident as it has been for the past three months,” he said.
That was a problem for students who had to adapt to remote learning. The territory lacked wide access to wireless internet, Armstrong said, so officials set up Wi-Fi hotspots near governmental offices.
The Seneca Nation faced repeated delays as it tried to obtain personal protective equipment, like masks and gloves, as well. Armstrong said tests from the federal Indian Health Service were initially in short supply.
“Due to the limited supply, the tests were administered on a priority basis,” he said. “As tests have become more available, we actively shared that information with our members.”
Five deaths so far
Despite initial concerns about federal and local preparedness, the Seneca Nation has “done well” in curtailing COVID-19, said Dean Seneca, an epidemiologist who spent 20 years at the Centers for Disease Control and is an expert in Native American and Alaskan Native health issues.
Lori Balengee, the director of the Allegany Health Department, said the Seneca health system was equipped to respond to the pandemic.
Nevertheless, Armstrong said, “the Seneca Nation has experienced the loss of Nation members, thankfully not to the same degree as other Native communities.”
Tribal government officials identified 16 residents who tested positive for the coronavirus. Five died, including one non-Seneca resident of the Cattaraugus Territory, according to a Seneca spokesman.
Armstrong, Seneca and Kane, a Mohawk who lives on the Seneca’s Cattaraugus territory, mourned the losses. Each drew particular attention to the late Norma Jean Kennedy, 92. Armstrong called her “one of our nation’s beloved elders.”
Kennedy occupied a number of governmental roles since the 1980s. She was among the first Native credentialed alcohol counselors and a tribal liaison to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. She later educated people in the Native tongue.
“She’s been instrumental to the progress of Native people,” Seneca said.
Data, though incomplete, shows COVID-19 has hit Native people hard across the United States.
“Native communities across the nation have paid a disproportionately high price in this pandemic, including significant numbers of confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths,” Armstrong said.
APM Research Lab, a non-partisan research group, found that 36 per 100,000 Native people have died of the virus, compared with 62 for blacks and 26 for whites.
According to analysis by scholars at the University of California, Los Angeles, five tribes have infection rates that outpace New York, the most affected U.S. state, which has reported 1,934 infections per 100,000 people — almost 2 percent. That’s dwarfed by the most infected Native population, the White Mountain Apache tribe of Arizona, where there have been more than 1,000 cases, an infection rate of 6.6 percent.
The federal agency responsible for tracking the data, Indian Health Service, found that the southwestern U.S. Navajo Nation was the most severely infected Native community. There are 2,852 infections per 100,000 people in the region — more than 6,600 cases and 319 deaths.
“There you do have major parts of the tribal nation that don’t have running water, don’t have access to electricity,” Seneca said of the Navajo region. “It’s pretty hard to practice prevention when you can’t wash your hands.”
Here in Western New York, the Tuscarora Nation, in Niagara County, was among the tribes without widespread water infrastructure as of 2018. Many of its wells were contaminated, the water unsafe to the drink. Bottled water drives were a normal occurrence.
Representatives of the Tuscarora Nation and its health center did not respond to phone calls and emails from Investigative Post. The tribe has not publicly reported testing, infection or death rates for COVID-19, according to available records.
Seneca, the CDC epidemiologist, said he has seen major economic and infrastructural changes take place on Seneca territory in his lifetime.
As Seneca grew up, nation-owned gas stations, convenience stores and tobacco operations have grown. As well, the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino, Niagara Resort and Casino and Allegany Resort and Casino were established.
Seneca, a Seneca Indian who lives in Springville, recalled several parts of tribal lands that were without electricity or water infrastructure when he was young. Funding from the enterprises changed that, he said.
“I’ve seen major improvements with just gas and cigarette operations,” Seneca said. “Once you added the casinos, it was another level.”
Armstrong observed the same. Native enterprises funded improvements in “nearly every facet of life on our territories,” he said. However, the revenue generation does not make up for centuries of poverty, the president added.
Kalt, the Harvard scholar, said there is no consensus among economists as to how long the economic recovery from the pandemic will take and what form it will follow.
“Particularly in any entertainment and tourism kind of industry, such as gaming, restaurants and resorts and so forth, it’s going to take awhile to convince customers to come back,” he said.
Any trouble among Indian Country’s economies will not be isolated. Tribal and local economic interests are interwoven.
Analysis by Harvard’s Project on American Indian Economic Development indicates that of the 1.1 million jobs created by tribal economies across the U.S., 915,000 belong to non-Native employees.
Locally, Armstrong said the employees of the nation government and enterprises compose one of the largest private workforces in Western New York. Across its enterprises and government, the tribal economy employs 5,800 people, he said.
Tribal businesses account for $262 million in annual wages and benefits. The nation is responsible for purchasing another $130 million in goods and services per year, Armstrong said.
He said Seneca commerce injects $1 billion per year into state and regional economies. In addition, the nation has paid over $1.4 billion since 2002 to New York State in casino proceeds. The state, in turn, has shared proceeds with cities where the casinos are located, including Salamanca, Niagara Falls and Buffalo. Seneca payments to the state have been in dispute in recent years.
Officials from Seneca Gaming Corp., which operates all three casinos, declined to answer questions from Investigative Post.
Reopening the casinos is due to take place in phases, under a strict set of health and safety protocols. The gaming facilities will open, but the attached hotel, spa and salon will not. Patrons can play slot machines, but not table or card games. Casino officials have said the site will operate at a reduced capacity to maintain social distancing.
Operating hours have been reduced to 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily and smoking will be prohibited “anywhere inside the resort.” Masks are mandatory for guests and employees, and temperatures will be taken upon entry.
Kane said he was initially skeptical about whether patrons would flock back to the casinos upon reopening. After seeing news reports of reopenings elsewhere in the country, he said his skepticism has waned. But he remains uncertain of what lies ahead for the total U.S. economy.
A recession? A depression? Kane wonders.
“I don’t think the full impact of COVID-19 has fully impacted the economy yet,” he said.
“I think there’s a real vulnerability to the dependency on gaming,” Kane added.