Future Proof: Racial Disparities and Racist Reactions to COVID-19, Plus Aiming for Equity in the Navajo Nation

Larry Curley is the Executive Director of the National Indian Council on Aging (NICOA) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Curley, who along with members of the National Tribal Chairmen’s Association founded NICOA in 1976, was named a 2019 Influencer in Aging by NextAvenue. In this episode of Future Proof, Peter and Larry will discuss issues of equity and justice and how they intersect with Larry's work with older adults in the Navajo Nation and how recently there have been resurgences in racism against members of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico due to COVID-19. 


 

 

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Larry Curley on left Peter Kaldes on right


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Key Quotes

On the impact of COVID-19

"In terms of the infrastructure of the Navajo Nation, I think it has just glaringly brought out those inequities and the disparities."

"We're talking right now you're in Florida and I'm in Albuquerque, New Mexico, we can cover the span of distance very easily. But in Indian Country, it is very, very difficult because in some areas of Indian Country, there is no broadband. There is no access to the internet. So you can't implement telehealth out there in Indian Country."

On nation-wide protests for racial justice and against police brutality

"I was part of the late 1960s and 1970s movement...But the young people today, they're even more committed. They've already inspired a massive cultural and a perspective change in our society. And I applaud them. I hope they continue. And I strongly support what they're doing."

"...mostly what I have heard is, 'That's what we've been going through for decades.' That the the brutality is there, the discrimination is there. The length of time people are sentenced to be incarcerated is much longer than the rest of the population, the non Indian population."

On Indegeous rights and identity

"One of the things that I have been saying for many, many years is we are American Indians and Alaska Natives. But we're part of a group of people that are recognized by the United States Government in the Constitution of the United States, Article One, Section Eight. We are a political body. We are members of a political body, and we're not a racial group in that sense. And I think that there are some people forget that there are 573 sovereign governments that have the right to determine who they are, what they are, where they're going, and be able to practice their religion, their traditions, their customs."

On aging and older adults

"I started counting one time, all of those elders that I knew and how old they were when I knew them. And you know, I counted their ages up....2000 years of what they taught me. 2000 years of experience and wisdom. I think that's how we should value our elders. To learn from them what they went through, and become just as resilient because we have a responsibility to the next generation behind us, and the one behind them. And I think we think too often in short term. What's tomorrow? next week? From our own almost a selfish perspective. We need to think about those young people that are coming up."


Transcript

Peter Kaldes  0:04  
Hi there, everyone. My name is Peter Kaldes. I'm the CEO of the American Society on Aging. Welcome to another episode of Future Proof. Today on Future Proof we're going to be continuing our conversation this season around equity and justice. And I'm really delighted with our guest today. His name is Larry Curley. He's the Executive Director of the National Indian Council on Aging in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a member of the Navajo Nation and, along with members of the National Tribal Chairman's Association, founded the NICOA in 1976. And last year, he was named a 2019 influencer in Aging by Next Avenue. Today we'll be addressing the issues of equity and justice, and how they intersect with Larry's important work with older adults in the Navajo Nation. So Larry, thank you very much for joining us on Future Proof. Welcome!

Larry Curley  0:59  
Thank you very much. Pleasure to be here.

Peter Kaldes  1:03  
Larry, I want to start off our conversation today with something very recent that happened. The Supreme Court's recent decision involving Indian law and Oklahoma. If you could share with us the impact of that particular case on some other matters that impact the civil rights of indigenous older adults. 

Larry Curley  1:33  
Well, I have been very interested in what's going on in Oklahoma and with the recent court decision regarding the jurisdiction of Indian tribes over what used to be Indian Country in Eastern Oklahoma. I been mulling through what will be the impact of that particular Supreme Court decision not only in the area of criminal law but also in civil law. In terms of where they are now, my understanding is that the five tribal leaders, or the five civilized tribes, had been working on an agreement with the Attorney General for the state of Oklahoma. And they had all agreed at some point of how they're going to divvy up the jurisdictional issues. But as of yesterday, I read that two of the tribal leaders backed out of that agreement, and so it puts everything into disarray. 

But I think looking at it from the aging perspective and elderly perspective, I think that part of the questions that I look at is, we currently have across this country, nursing home ombudsman funded by the Older Americans Act, and those nursing home ombudsmen have jurisdiction and they exercise their jurisdiction over an looking at nursing homes, doing inspections and making sure they follow up on complaints. And the question is, will those ombudsmen now have jurisdiction over Indian Country nursing homes in Indian Country like in Tulsa in other parts of the state of Oklahoma? I don't know. And I think that that's something that will probably have to be worked out. But it does fall into the issue of how are we going to be treated equally? And with justice in terms of following up on complaints, are the tribes going to allow the non-tribal nursing home ombudsman into their Indian country to look at nursing homes, etc. So it brings up a lot of these kinds of issues. And I also wonder, for example, whether under the Older Americans Act, we have the title three programs, you know, we have Area Agencies on Aging. For these Area Agencies that were created by the state of Oklahoma, will the tribes now have jurisdiction over those Area Agencies and determine where those Area Agencies will be placed? So it creates a lot of, I think, uncertainty. And we don't need any more uncertainty in what's going on today in this world. So, but that's just a short answer, just kind of reflecting what's going on out there.

Peter Kaldes  4:21  
It's a fascinating case. I know it was heralded by many who practice Indian Law. But you can easily see how that kind of inconsistent application could have some pretty devastating effects. Particularly, as we want to talk about today, in areas of the country and with members of the Navajo Nation who are struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, and how that has exacerbated racial disparities within the Nation and within nursing homes and other areas. So I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about how COVID-19 has really shown those racial disparities.

Larry Curley  5:11  
In terms of the infrastructure of the Navajo Nation, I think it has just glaringly brought out those inequities and the disparities. I know because I used to be the Executive Director of the Department of Health for the Navajo Nation. And in my department, I have 14 major programs and having been out there and going out and seeing my elders out there on Navajo Country. Water, obviously, there's lack of water, there's no running water going into homes. And that exacerbates the problems, the health issues out there. Roads, in the wintertime or in even summertime when it rains, roads are impassable. So if an elderly person is in an emergency situation, some of those roads are impassable. And that creates a health issue. And overall having been involved in the area of Indian health for quite some time, and specifically looking at it through the lens of how is it going to affect our elders in this country. Indian Health Service is a major health care provider out in Indian Country. And for years and years, and I've been one of the ones yelling and screaming at the top of my lungs just say, we are underfunded. We need to be able to have the amount of funding that is commensurate with what's happening elsewhere. 

I was listening in on a meeting yesterday with a group called a T-TAG. That's the Tribal, Technical and Advisory Group, an advisory group to CMS. And there was an individual there who said that the per person allocation of funds for Indian people is $3,900 compared to $11,000 for the non-Indian population. So, right there is a discrepancy and an inequitable distribution of resources. And when we talked about providers, for example, when I was out there in Indian Country working with the tribes it was difficult to recruit doctors, nurses because most of those tribes are located out in the middle of nowhere and they don't want to go to those kinds of facilities. And so it's very difficult and if you do have one willing to come out, you have to pay them at a higher price to recruit them out to those facilities. And so just the proportion of providers out there is severely lacking.  

Peter Kaldes  8:13  
In addition to access to doctors, what other issues have come up as a result of the pandemic that you've seen as executive director of the NICOA?

Larry Curley  8:27  
Well, one of the things that has come up, every Friday, we were having discussions with all 273 title six directors around the country and every one of them were talking about what's missing out there. PPE for example. Face masks are lacking out there. So these are just some of the problems that they're dealing with and having to deal with them. For example, there were saying, "We have people out here who need dialysis," and since some of the tribes have locked down their reservations, they're not allowed to go off-reservation. And so is it creating that kind of a problem. And in talking about health care, the delivery of health care, in the rest of the country, telehealth is easily available. We're talking right now you're in Florida and I'm in Albuquerque, New Mexico, we can cover the span of distance very easily. But in Indian Country, it is very, very difficult because in some areas of Indian Country, there is no broadband. There is no access to the internet. So you can't implement telehealth out there in Indian Country. And so that that exacerbates the problem even more than just the issue that we're just discussing.

Peter Kaldes  9:55  
I want to talk a little bit about what's going on in our country today, besides the pandemic. Can we reflect a little bit on the recent protests against racism and police brutality? I'm wondering if you could reflect a little bit about the reaction of your members to these protests?

Larry Curley  10:13  
Well, I have not heard anyone say, "The police are doing fine. They're protecting us. They're taking care of us." I have not heard anybody say anything of that sort. But mostly what I have heard is, "That's what we've been going through for decades." That the brutality is there, the discrimination is there. The length of time people are sentenced to be incarcerated is much longer than the rest of the population, the non-Indian population. And so that's what I've been hearing and seeing. For example, just recently, about a year ago, there was a young Lady in Winslow, Arizona, who happens to be a member of my tribe. She went to a Circle K gas station store, a convenient store, and the store manager accused her of shoplifting. The cops showed up and they shot her five times. And the people there who looked at the investigator said he was a justified homicide. Five times she was shot. And they said that she was carrying scissors and that made her dangerous. It was one of the paper cutting scissors, one of those small school type. So, you know, things are happening and we don't find it surprising that this is happening. Even from my own personal experience. When I'm driving down the road and all of a sudden I see a police car come up behind me, automatically, the hair on the back of my neck stands up, "Don't do anything crazy, drive careful, don't look suspicious." It's what comes with the territory. And I think that a lot of Indian people in this country have gotten to that point where they feel that way as well. There's a different perspective.

Peter Kaldes  12:30  
Yeah, there are a lot of similarities with what we're hearing from folks who are just frustrated at these kinds of day-in and day-out aggressions. I'm wondering what you have to say to the young protesters, how do your members and how do you feel about seeing a real movement emerge? 

Larry Curley  12:55  
Well, I was part of the late 1960s and 1970s movement. I was part of that generation. And I think that it's powerful. I think we, my generation who were part of that movement back in the late 60s, early 70s, I think we blew it. I think we missed an opportunity to change the face of this country. But the young people today, they're even more committed. They've already inspired a massive cultural and a perspective change in our society. And I applaud them. I hope they continue. And I strongly support what they're doing.

Peter Kaldes  13:44  
I think there'll be a lot of protesters would never suggest that your generation blew it at all. In fact, to the contrary, they couldn't be protesting like this, but for your work, so I hope you don't, you don't really think that.

I want to talk to you about some other things that the protests have forced us to rethink and that is our history and our approach to history, our approach to who we commemorate and why. And one issue that has taken a bit more of our attention now is the naming of military bases. And I know the Navajo Nation played such a key role. Members of the Navajo Nation played such a key role in fighting most of our wars in the United States. So I'm wondering, can you talk about a movement or the effort to rename some of the military bases after those who fought on behalf of our country but who were from the Navajo Nation?

Larry Curley  14:45  
I think it'd be appropriate, quite frankly. I read somewhere a few years back that American Indians in this country, proportionally more of them have served in the military and fought on behalf of this country. My tribe, the Navajo Nation, lent its language, to win a war. And those are the Navajo Code Talkers. I think the Navy recently named a whole new class of ships for the Navajo Nation. Navajo class, I think it was called, Navajo class destroyers. But I think it's starting. I think we need to be remembered, That there were Indian people from across the country who fought bravely on our behalf. We have, for example, right now in the Navajo Nation, one of the code talkers, his name is Peter McDonald. He's a former chairman of the Navajo Nation and he's one of the original code talkers. And I think that those are the people that need to be honored. It's not only just Navajos, I think I heard that the Creeks also had some and the Crows also were a part of that code talking group during World War II. But we have American Indians who are also generals. Who have attained the rank of Generals. And they think that when their time ends, that we ought to honor those generals as well.  I have a lot of respect for our veterans for what they've done and what they fought for. For that possibility that one day I would be able to sit down and talk with you in the language that you can understand. That was what they fought for. And I am honored to be a part of that legacy.

Peter Kaldes  16:51  
I'm wondering if you could also share with us what you think we can do as a country to be more inclusive around Native Americans and be more all-encompassing when we talk about race. In other words, it's not just about Black Lives Matter. It is about our general treatment of minorities in this country. I'm wondering, what would you recommend to our ASA members to be more inclusive? How could they be more inclusive?

Larry Curley  17:25  
One of the things that I have been saying for many, many years is we are American Indians and Alaska Natives. But we're part of a group of people that are recognized by the United States Government in the Constitution of the United States, Article One, Section Eight. We are a political body. We are members of a political body, and we're not a racial group in that sense. And I think that there are some people forget that there are 573 sovereign governments that have the right to determine who they are, what they are, where they're going, and be able to practice their religion, their traditions, their customs. And when I think about them, I think about, at least from my own personal perspective, we look at everything on this planet as equal. We are equal beings. The mountains are equal. Some of those mountains are very sacred to us, because they hold certain meanings. And when I see the non-Indian population going up to one of our sacred mountains and putting up a ski resort up on there and then using artificial reclaimed water to make fake snow. And reclaimed water is made up of, you know, processed human stuff. It would be like me going to the Mormon Tabernacle and urinating on it. It is not something we would do, because we respect them. And I wish the larger population would understand that all of these places that they see and walk upon, from our perspective, is very sacred because it contains the dust of the ashes of our ancestors. It's sacred land, and that's who we are. 

And when we talk about history books, please add in there the fact that Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé Tribe was a fantastic military strategist. Crazy Horse what he did. Chief Manuelito of the Navajo Nation. All of those were powerful people, and they have wisdom that a lot of the larger population could use now.

Peter Kaldes  20:13  
Larry, I'm wondering if you could share with us how you think older adults from various Indian Nations can help not just inform our ASA members, providers, health care providers, etc, but could really play a role in better understanding just how different and how unique every single older adult is in America. What sorts of things should we be doing?

Larry Curley  20:46  
I really think that they need to take the time to sit down and talk with them. Sit down and talk. And those elderly people are more than willing to share what they know and how they perceive the world. What their role was in the world that we created. They're fantastic storytellers. And I think that's where the interaction needs to occur. 

You know I run across people here in New Mexico who have lived here in New Mexico all their lives, and still know very little about the Indian Tribes here in New Mexico. And they ask questions, like, "Are we permitted to go on the reservation?" Yes, you're permitted. We're not going to kick you off the Rez. Come in. It's not like a private Country Club where you got to be a member to go in. The Indian reservations are not a country club. You're invited, come visit us. Please come and see where we live and you will have a better understanding. And I think that one of the things that you'll note in Indian Country among our elders is they're resilient. They are very strong people. And for those who make it to the age of 70 80, 90, they were probably the cream of the crop in terms of the strongest, the fittest, the wisest, and the most resilient, and they have much to teach us. 

Even at my age, I think back to the time when I was working with all kinds of elders -- Asian people, African Americans, Jewish population, the regular white population, other Indian tribes -- and I started counting one time, all of those elders that I knew and how old they were when I knew them. And you know, I counted their ages up. Like, like Esther Tang in Tucson. She was 78 years old when I knew her. I added all ages up. 2000 years of what they taught me. 2000 years of experience and wisdom. I think that's how we should value our elders. To learn from them what they went through, and become just as resilient because we have a responsibility to the next generation behind us, and the one behind them. And I think we think too often in the short term. What's tomorrow? next week? From our own almost a selfish perspective. We need to think about those young people that are coming up.

Peter Kaldes  23:31  
Larry, I couldn't agree with you more. I think, like we're seeing with racism, ageism devalues human life, and we really need to do so much more to remind ourselves that we do have value as we age. I know at the ASA, we're gonna be doing a lot more of that work to demonstrate that and I'm so grateful for all the work that you're doing. We're nearly out of time, Larry, but I want to ask you one question that I've been asking all our guests here on season two of Future Proof. And that is, why do you think that you've pursued a career where you are advocating for equity and justice?

Larry Curley  24:15  
Well, I think that one of the things is just the way I was raised. My father was a medicine man. He was not educated in the formal sense, but he knew the world. And one of the things that he said was, "You're no better nor worse than anybody in this on this planet, including the bugs, the birds, the animals. You're no better and you're no worse. You're all equal, treat everybody equally." And so when I take a look at the world, and I say, "Our elders need to be treated equally. Our people need to be treated equally and respected in that particular fashion." I think that working with elderly populations has provided me with a platform to be able to do that.

Peter Kaldes  25:01  
And I'm glad that you are and I know you're going to continue to do as much as possible to advocate for all our seniors. So thank you so much for the work that you're doing and for your contributions to ASA. We're very, very grateful. 

And that wraps it up. Larry, thank you for joining us. And thank you for joining us as well. We hope you've enjoyed this episode. And if you want to log in and view more episodes, visit our website, and stay tuned for more Future Proof.