The infrastructure bill is historic for Native people. Community leaders hope the investment won’t end here.

A Native woman wearing a mask with several men behind her out of focus
Native leaders hope the bill marks the beginning, rather than the culmination, of federal investment in Native communities. Granddriver/Getty Images
  • The infrastructure bill includes unprecedented financial investment in Native communities. 
  • In total, more than $US11 ($AU15) billion has been earmarked for various projects in Native communities. 
  • The bill took years of advocacy on behalf of Native leaders and activists. 

President Joe Biden signed a $US1 ($AU1) trillion infrastructure bill last week, and while the legislation was half its original size, it includes unprecedented investment in Native communities. 

“We are pretty pleased that a bunch of what we’re advocating for made it into the final bill,” Aaron Payment, recording secretary of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), told Insider. “It’s unprecedented, the amount of money coming to Indian Country.” 

In total, more than $US11 ($AU15) billion has been earmarked for various infrastructure projects in Native communities. 

The Infrastructure Bill and Jobs Act allocates around $US8 ($AU11) billion to various programs that focus on creating safe sanitation facilities for drinking water and transportation that allows for safe access to and within reservations. 

The bill also sets aside approximately $US3 ($AU4) billion to fund Congressionally authorized Indian water settlements, and $US2 ($AU3) billion to expand broadband access. 

More than $US215 ($AU301) million is designated towards the Indian Affairs Tribal Climate Resilience Program to develop solutions for tribes grappling with the impact of climate change, which Native communities have been disproportionately affected by. 

“The impact will be immense,” Deb Haaland, the US Secretary of the Interior and one of the two first Native American women elected to Congress, wrote of the bill in a recent Op-Ed. “As one tribal leader commented, ‘This will have generational impacts for my tribal nation and Indian Country as a whole.'” 

Though the bill is historic, Native leaders hope that it marks the beginning, rather than the culmination, of federal investment in Native communities. 

“While we are grateful for the large commitment to Indian Country, we think it’s a long time coming and it’s the federal government doing what it’s obligated to do,” Payment said. 

Some funds in the bill have yet to be earmarked

A representative from the Senate Committee for Indian Affairs told Insider that the infrastructure bill will be part of continued investment and that “Senate Democrats are working to address priorities not addressed in the infrastructure bill in the pending Build Back Better reconciliation bill, including those for Native communities.” 

There are also several billion dollars in funds in the infrastructure bill that are allocated generally for Native communities, but whose purpose has not yet been designated. 

Those designations will be made after consultation with Native leaders, said Payment of ACAI, though he has some ideas about what the money should be used for. 

“I’m hoping we have consultations that will get to our additional needs, like the backlog of new school construction and school maintenance, health facilities that are aged out and need improvement, and new facilities to address the opioid crisis,” Payment said. 

“We also need cultural facilities that provide a new and innovative way to retain culture and language to help us become more resilient,” he added. 

Greater financial investment in early childhood education and higher education is something Payment would like to see. 

The infrastructure bill took years of advocacy from Native leaders

While it’s easy to frame the infrastructure bill as a win for Native communities that seemingly occurred overnight, it took years of advocacy on behalf of Native leaders and activists to see strong financial investment from the federal government. 

It also took a pandemic that severely decimated Native communities to achieve these results. 

Several CDC studies show that American Indians and Alaska Natives are among the ethnic and racial minority groups at “higher risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes.” 

The pandemic also affected Indigenous communities’ ability to address the financial toll of the health crisis. Native Americans have been providing a wide range of governmental services on their lands without federal assistance, since tribes cannot collect taxes to pay for these services.

When the pandemic struck, tribal businesses closed and support services were in limbo. 

“It’s a constant journey and we’re not done yet,” Payment said. 

“Now we’re working on trying to make sure Build Back Better possibly sees the light of day and if that’s approved, that it has key provisions for Indian Country in it.”