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Poll: 69% of Native Americans say inflation is severely affecting their lives

Demus Martinez, of the Confederated Tribes Of Warm Springs, has reduced trips to the grocery store from weekly to twice monthly to reduce how much money his family spends on gas.
Josué Rivas/INDÍGENA for NPR
Demus Martinez, of the Confederated Tribes Of Warm Springs, has reduced trips to the grocery store from weekly to twice monthly to reduce how much money his family spends on gas.

During a hot, hazy morning on Oregon's Warm Springs Indian Reservation, resident Jake Billy leans on his car and tells a story. Once a long time ago there was someone special in his life.

"I almost married that girl," he says. "It was very close. It was iffy."

Things didn't work out. But Billy stayed in touch with his ex and her family. When his ex girlfriend's sister died recently, he wanted to go to the funeral a three hour drive away. But he just didn't have the money for gas. "I said my goodbyes from here," he says.

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These kinds of heart wrenching decisions illustrate the quiet assault of inflation on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, located about 100 miles southeast of Portland. Had Billy been able to go to the funeral, he would have been able to offer emotional support to the family. "Which is something that natives do," says Billy. "It's our culture."

Jacob Billy, an elementary school science teacher, couldn't attend a friend's funeral because of the high price of gas.
Josué Rivas/INDÍGENA for NPR
Jacob Billy, an elementary school science teacher, couldn't attend a friend's funeral because of the high price of gas.

No other single group in the country is feeling as much financial strain right now as are Native Americans. A recent pollfrom NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found inflation has caused a staggering 69% of Native Americans significant financial problems.

According to census data, close to 27% of Native Americans live in poverty. That's significantly more than the rest of the country, which averages close to 15%.

Some residents of the Warm Springs reservation live as much as 40 miles from the nearest full-sized grocery store.
Josué Rivas/INDÍGENA for NPR
Some residents of the Warm Springs reservation live as much as 40 miles from the nearest full-sized grocery store.
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The high cost of gas and soaring food prices make life on the reservation even more difficult than usual.

For the more than 4,000 people who live in Warm Springs, it's not just driving long distances that's difficult to afford. The closest full-size grocery store is in the town of Madras, Ore. For some people on the reservation, that's as much as 40 miles away.

"We're in a food desert," says Demus Martinez, who is a financial counselor at the Warm Springs Community Action Team, a non-profit that helps people build financial skills. Martinez says the people he works with are taking as few grocery trips as possible lately. Even his own family of five now drives to the Costco, nearly 60 miles away, only twice each month.

Demus Martinez works for the Warm Springs Community Action Team to help build financial stability in his community.
Josué Rivas/INDÍGENA for NPR
Demus Martinez works for the Warm Springs Community Action Team to help build financial stability in his community.

Tribal members are creative about making ends meet during this time of high inflation.

There is one way to get off the reservation without paying for gas. Tribal member Sheila Thrasher was waiting for the bus early one recent morning on the Warm Springs Reservation. She lives with her two adult daughters and their families. "We help each other," she says. "It's the only way that families get around here."

In order to get to the bus, Thrasher rode her bike two miles. She loads the bike on the front of the bus before boarding. Twenty-five minutes later, she takes it off the rack once she's 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
Many residents of the Warm Springs Reservation take the bus to and from the grocery store to save money on gas.

"I have a question," she says to the woman working in the Safeway grocery store. "Can I park my bike here while I do my shopping? I don't have a lock."

Thrasher then heads into the aisles to do her shopping. She knows she'll only be able to carry one bag home on her bike, and she only has one hour until the bus returns. She has just 32 dollars. She says what she's planning to buy today will last her a couple days.

In the frozen foods Section, Thrasher pauses while she looks at the blueberries. A small bag costs $3.99. She'd 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 goes 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 those at big-box grocery stores.
Josué Rivas/INDÍGENA for NPR
Warm Springs Market is one of the few places to buy food on the reservation. Prices tend to be higher than those at big-box grocery stores.

After shopping, Thrasher heads to the bus stop and waits. Then, another 25 minute ride with her rapidly defrosting blueberries.

Back at the Warm Springs Reservation, Thrasher takes her bike back off the bus. Then she puts her arms through the handles of the shopping bag, like a backpack for her ride home.

She says the 13 people in her household live on a food budget of about $500 per month in public assistance, plus whatever is left over from paychecks after other bills. Inflation means the money isn't stretching as far lately. But the family is finding a way. One thing they've done to deal with higher prices: They've told the kids no more snacks. Only meals.

"Things you got to do to get by," Thrasher says before she rides away. "It's all good."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Youngman sits at the route 20 bus stop on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon. Public transportation helps residents save money on gas.
Josué Rivas/INDÍGENA for NPR
Greg Youngman sits at the route 20 bus stop on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon. Public transportation helps residents save money on gas.

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