Many Native Americans Say Inflation Severely Affects Their Lives: NPR

Demus Martinez of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs cut grocery store trips from a week to twice a month to cut down on his family’s gas expenses.

Josué Rivas/INDÍGENA for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Josué Rivas/INDÍGENA for NPR


Demus Martinez of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs cut grocery store trips from a week to twice a month to cut down on his family’s gas expenses.

Josué Rivas/INDÍGENA for NPR

On a hot, foggy morning on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon, resident Jake Billy leans into his car and tells a story. A long time ago, there was someone special in her life.

“I almost married that girl,” he says. “It was very close. It was uncertain.”

Things didn’t work out. But Billy stayed in touch with his ex and his family. When his ex-girlfriend’s sister died recently, he wanted to go to the funeral three hours away. But he just didn’t have the money for gas. “I said goodbye from here,” he said.

These kinds of heartbreaking decisions illustrate the silent onslaught of inflation on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, located about 100 miles southeast of Portland. If Billy could have made it to the funeral, he could have offered emotional support to the family. “It’s something the natives do,” says Billy. “It’s our culture.”

Primary science teacher Jacob Billy was unable to attend a friend’s funeral because of high gas prices.

Josué Rivas/INDÍGENA for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Josué Rivas/INDÍGENA for NPR

No other single group in the country is feeling as much financial pressure right now as Native Americans. A recent poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health found that inflation has caused significant financial problems for 69% of Native Americans.

According to census data, nearly 27% of Native Americans live in poverty. That’s a lot more than the rest of the country, which averages almost 15%.

Some residents of the Warm Springs Reservation live up to 40 miles from the nearest grocery store.

Josué Rivas/INDÍGENA for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Josué Rivas/INDÍGENA for NPR

The high cost of gasoline and soaring food prices are making life on the reservation even more difficult than usual.

For the more than 4,000 people who call Warm Springs home, it’s not just traveling long distances that’s hard to afford. The nearest full-size grocery store is in the city of Madras, Ore. For some people on the reservation, it’s up to 40 miles.

“We’re in a food desert,” says Demus Martinez, who is a financial counselor with the Community Action Team at Warm Springs, a nonprofit that helps people learn financial skills. Martinez says the people he works with are doing as few errands as possible lately. Even her own family of five now goes to Costco, nearly 60 miles away, just twice a month.

Demus Martinez works for the Warm Springs Community Action Team to help establish financial stability in his community.

Josué Rivas/INDÍGENA for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Josué Rivas/INDÍGENA for NPR

Tribal members are getting creative to make ends meet in this time of high inflation.

There is a way to get out of the reservation without paying gas. Tribe member Sheila Thrasher was waiting for the early bus one recent morning on the Warm Springs Reservation. She lives with her two adult daughters and their families. “We help each other,” she said. “It’s the only way for families to get around here.”

To get to the bus, Thrasher cycled two miles. She loads the bike on the front of the bus before getting on. Twenty-five minutes later, she removes it from the rack once she arrives at the store.

Many residents of the Warm Springs Reservation take the bus to and from the grocery store to save money on gas.

Josué Rivas/INDÍGENA for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Josué Rivas/INDÍGENA for NPR

“I have a question,” she tells the woman who works at the Safeway grocery store. “Can I park my bike here while I shop? I don’t have a padlock.

Thrasher then heads into the aisles to do his shopping. She knows she can only take one bag home on her bike, and she only has an hour before the bus returns. She only has 32 dollars. She says what she plans to buy today will last her a few days.

In the frozen food section, Thrasher pauses looking at the blueberries. A small bag costs $3.99. She would like to buy the bigger one, but it’s too expensive. And she might not be able to carry it on her bike ride home. So she opts for the small bag.

Warm Springs Market is one of the few places to buy food on the reservation. Prices tend to be higher than big box grocery stores.

Josué Rivas/INDÍGENA for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Josué Rivas/INDÍGENA for NPR

After shopping, Thrasher heads to the bus stop and waits. Then another 25 minute ride with his quick thawing blueberries.

Back at the Warm Springs reservation, Thrasher removes his bike from the bus. Then she slips her arms through the handles of the shopping bag, like a backpack to go home.

She says her 13-person household lives on a food budget of about $500 a month in public assistance, plus whatever’s left over from paychecks after other bills. Inflation means silver hasn’t stretched that far lately. But the family finds a way. One thing they did to deal with the rising prices: they told the kids not to snack anymore. Only meals.

“Things you have to do to get by,” Thrasher said before leaving. “It’s perfect.”

Greg Youngman sits at the Route 20 bus stop on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon. Public transit helps residents save money on gas.

Josué Rivas/INDÍGENA for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Josué Rivas/INDÍGENA for NPR

Nohemi M. Moore