August 6, 2020

Food, forums, frustration: How Phoenix’s urban Indian centers changed with COVID-19

Author: Debra Utacia Krol

Geronimo Martinez slouched comfortably in a chair, his long white beard flowing from underneath his mask. A white ponytail hung down the back of his blue t-shirt.
Martinez, 78, came to Native Health on an already sweltering day in uptown Phoenix to collect his regular food box. Like other elders, Martinez receives lettuce, tomatoes, acorn squash, butternut squash, kale, cucumbers, pineapple and other nutritious foods, as well as toiletries and other needed supplies.
"When you grow up poor you eat everything," Martinez said, "My mom cooked, you'd better eat it, otherwise you ain't gonna eat."
That's why he weighed 170 pounds at age 11: "I was as wide as I was tall," Martinez said.
He said he managed to lose the excess weight and lead a healthier life. With the help of a nutrition program offered by Native Health, Martinez is eating well.
He’s one of 20,000 Native people served by one of the country's largest urban Indian health facilities, which, along with two other urban Indian organizations, has altered its program offerings and procedures to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The centers moved many of their services online, adjusted food programs to ensure the people who needed assistance got it and reached out to people who were unable to seek help in person. As schools resume teaching, the organizations are trying to make sure kids have laptops and internet access.
"I really have to recognize the hard work and dedication and commitment of our staff," said Native Health CEO Walter Murillo. The 180-person staff have put in long days with extra work without a complaint, he said. "It's more like, 'Well, it's got to get done and we're the ones to do it.'"
Federal policies and urban Natives
About 131,000 people, or 30% of the 424,000 Indigenous people in Arizona, live in Maricopa County, according to the U.S. Census. That figure includes about 6,000 Native people who live in two tribal communities within county borders.
Murillo said tribal members representing more than 120 tribes reside in the county.
In the mid-20th century, the federal government enacted the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which created programs to persuade Native people to leave their tribal lands and move to cities. The goal was that Native people would assimilate into the mainstream and eventually, end tribal cultures.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs offered job training and placement and some health care coverage. This act was the flip side of the forced termination of many tribes across the nation, which ended trust land status, federal funding and tribal governance. Although no Arizona tribes were terminated, Phoenix was one of the designated destinations for relocated Native people.
The program, like other federal Indian policies, failed to end tribes as the government intended, but it did lead to the establishment of several organizations to support the Native families left in big cities with few resources. The relocation policy also brought about the beginnings of “pan-Indian” culture, featuring powwows, drum circles and other facets of certain tribal cultures that brought together Indians from many tribes.
Other Indians come to cities for greater career opportunities. Mallory Smith, the food coordinator at Native Health, said she had returned home to the Navajo Nation to work as a diabetes nutrition technician after obtaining a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University. Smith went on to obtain a master’s degree in public health but couldn’t move up the career ladder in the Navajo Nation.
“So I started looking for jobs in Phoenix,” said Smith. “Shortly afterward, I was hired by Native Health.”
Like other peoples of color, urban Natives tend to have higher poverty rates, higher unemployment and lower educational levels than non-Hispanic white people, according to a 2017 report by the Urban Indian Health Institute. The report also indicated that Native people in the county rent at a rate nearly 1.8 times higher than non-Hispanic white people.