‘It’s hurting in the short term. It’s hurting now.’

Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo discusses his community’s COVID-19 response.


A man sits in front of a home at Sky City, one of three villages which make up Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico.
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Editor’s note: Since this interview, the Small Business Association (SBA) reversed its previous exclusion of gaming enterprises from the Paycheck Protection Program that left tribal gaming ineligible for PPP loans.

Tribes across the Southwest have been badly hit by the world’s newest coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19. One pueblo, however, has seen fewer confirmed cases than neighboring communities, including other pueblos. Acoma Pueblo, a small tribal community with just over 4,800 citizens, lies 65 miles west of Albuquerque near El Malpais National Monument. Acoma Gov. Brian Vallo credits the pueblo’s stringent response to the pandemic: On Feb. 26, the same day that New Mexico announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19, Vallo mobilized an emergency response team. Then, on March 17, he closed almost all tribal business and pueblo visitation to the public, a week before New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D, declared a stay-at-home order. Still, tribal nations often lack the ability to test, contract trace or monitor households effectively, according to a risk assessment by the think tank Center for World Indigenous Studies.

High Country News spoke with Vallo about the economic impacts of closing businesses like the Sky City Casino, which funds Acoma Pueblo’s government services and programs, his frustration that Indian Country was a stimulus package afterthought, and the difficulty of informing spiritual leaders about the risks of public gatherings. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

High Country News: What was Acoma Pueblo's response when the coronavirus began to spread in New Mexico?

Gov. Brian Vallo: We had been monitoring the exposure of the coronavirus in the United States, as we have many members of our tribe who live in different parts of the country, many of whom live along the West coast. And so we were very concerned about their well-being as the virus was making its way into the U.S. That was really when we began to mobilize and discuss strategies. But when the first cases were reported in New Mexico, that very same day, we did mobilize our emergency response team.

We wanted to ensure that we were taking immediate steps, including a declaration of a state of emergency, the closure of tribal government operations as well as closure of our casino operation, one of our travel centers, our hotel, the various restaurants and eateries, as well as our big game trophy hunt operation.

HCN: What is the ongoing discussion about your tribal businesses? Is there a plan in place? 

GBV: A bulk of our business is in the hospitality and tourism industry, and so we are bracing ourselves. We’re having a dialogue about what that recovery is going to look like. This is something that, again, we're not going to be able to do on our own. We will need the support of both the federal and state governments to assist us in re-establishing our business operation. Because depending on how long these closures last, and if we don’t have access to a financial resource to re-establish operations and to bring back our workforce, you know, we will find ourselves in a very difficult situation.

Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo
Kitty Leaken

HCN: A lot of hospitals seem to be short-staffed and running low on personal protective equipment. How is your local hospital doing?

GBV: The hospital, which is located on Acoma lands, is the Acoma-Canoncito-Laguna Hospital. It's an Indian Health Services facility, which was established in the 1970s and designed to service not only our people, but also tribal members from our neighboring Pueblo of Laguna and also the To’Hajiilee Navajo chapter. So it serves a large population of people. Over the years, because of reduced funding and other resources, the facility (has become) limited in terms of its capacity. But it is a fully functioning hospital and remains a functioning hospital now, during this pandemic. Similar to other Indian Health Services entities in the country, we remain concerned about capacity and the ability of our service unit to provide or be responsive to COVID-19 while also maintaining regular healthcare services to our community.

They are operating OK for now. They've set up some facilities outside of the hospital for screening and testing and for processing patients into the hospital. We anticipate that we will be conducting additional testing at ACL Hospital, but even here, because of the lack of test kits that get divvied up among the Indian Health Service hospitals and clinics, we only have access to a few testing kits. So testing is not open for everyone at ACL Hospital. So while there's testing that's happening there, currently it is limited to individuals who have known exposure to positive cases and others who present COVID-19 symptoms.

HCN: Lots of tribal governments rely on casino revenue. Do you think closing your casinos will hurt your pueblo in the long term?

GBV: It's hurting in the short term. It's hurting now, because for most of us that revenue is our source for the programs and services that we provide our communities. We have been discussing, since the day we decided to shut down our casinos, “How do we survive?” And to go back to the CARES Act and the funding that was allocated to the Small Business Administration, the rulemaking for who qualifies (means that) many of our tribal casinos will not qualify for that funding. And so we are in an active fight at the moment for SBA to reconsider these rules, as they impact, in a very negative way, our tribal casino operations.

HCN: Are ceremonial and cultural events still going to take place, or are those being postponed?

GBV: Probably one of the most difficult situations that we have as tribal leaders of Acoma is to have to inform our cultural and spiritual leaders of the situation and to have to ask them to consider making adjustments, to canceling events like cultural observances. And as difficult as that has been to convey and to leave in the hands of these cultural and spiritual leaders, most of whom are elders, many are modifying various cultural observances and they're being very cautious in the way they, as our cultural leaders, are carrying out their responsibilities on behalf of our people.

HCN: There's not a whole lot of coverage of Indian Country in the mainstream media. I'm wondering what you would like to see, the stories you would like to see told. 

GBV: During this time there's a lot of attention, and for good reason, on what's happening on Navajo Nation, which is just really, really heartbreaking. What I hope that does is reveal and educate at the same time the conditions of our respective tribal communities, that we still are struggling to harness the support of the federal government and its trust responsibilities and treaty responsibilities, and providing resources so that we have better health in our communities. Health crises already exist in our tribal communities around diabetes and other illnesses, revealing how there's still a great need to be met. 

Our tribes have basically shut down, just like a lot of cities and towns have. Our needs are very similar to those towns and cities of mainstream America, so why is it that we would be left out?

We are also challenged by Congress, even in the early deliberation and development around relief legislation to support this country. Nowhere in those earlier bills were Native American people considered. It wasn't until congressional representatives reached out to tribes to inform us of this legislation that we reacted to this blatant disregard on the part of the federal government to consider the needs of Indian Country. And so, thankfully, after two drafts of the CARES Act, there is funding specifically for the Indian Health Service and various agencies that offer resources back to tribes.

But even then, we have a process that is not necessarily equitable. I think when news (stories are) being crafted, there has to be a more concentrated effort to educate. Our tribes have basically shut down, just like a lot of cities and towns have. Our needs are very similar to those towns and cities of mainstream America, so why is it that we would be left out? What would be amazing to me is if the Congress crafted a relief package specifically for Native American people in light of their trust responsibility. That would say a lot for the leadership of this country.

Kalen Goodluck is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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