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69% of Native Americans say inflation has caused major financial problems, poll finds

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

No other racial or ethnic group in the country is feeling as much financial strain right now as Native Americans. That's according to a national poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It found that inflation has caused 69% of Native Americans significant financial problems. Katia Riddle reports from Oregon's Warm Springs Indian Reservation.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: It's a hazy, hot morning in Warm Springs, a few hours southeast of Portland. Tribal member Jake Billy leans on his car, and he tells this story. A long time ago, there was someone special in his life.

JAKE BILLY: Well, see, I almost married that girl. It was very close. It was iffy.

RIDDLE: In the end, they split up. But Billy stayed in touch with his ex and her family.

BILLY: And that's the way I hope to live my life. I have connections that can stay with us longer than the moment.

RIDDLE: Recently, his ex's sister died. He wanted to go to the funeral, but he couldn't.

BILLY: I don't have enough money or resources to get over there.

RIDDLE: The funeral was a three-hour drive. He just couldn't afford the gas.

BILLY: I said my goodbyes from here, I guess.

RIDDLE: The quiet assault of inflation, says Billy, has made for heart-wrenching choices like this one. It robbed him of this small but sacred ritual.

BILLY: You know, I wanted to help the family and support the family, which is something that Natives do. We support each other whenever we can. It's our culture. And when that's kind of jeopardized, we're slightly diminished in that capacity.

RIDDLE: More than 4,000 people live in Warm Springs. For them, it's not just getting to out-of-town funerals that's hard to afford. For some people here, the closest full-size grocery store is almost 40 miles away.

DEMUS MARTINEZ: We're in a food desert.

RIDDLE: Demus Martinez is with the Warm Springs Community Action Team. It's a nonprofit that helps people build financial skills. Martinez says folks here lately are planning as few grocery trips as possible. That includes his own family of five.

MARTINEZ: We only go twice a month now. You know, so we're saving 160 bucks in gas, you know what I mean, so?

RIDDLE: There is one way to get off the reservation without paying for gas. Tribal member Shelia Thrasher is waiting at the bus stop on this day. She's riding to the grocery store. She lives with her two adult daughters and their families.

SHELIA THRASHER: Thirteen in that house, so...

RIDDLE: Wow. You're feeding 13 people.

THRASHER: I'm not feeding them all, but we help each other. So when they need something, if I have something, we share. This is the only way that basically families get around here.

RIDDLE: Before inflation ballooned, Thrasher would often catch rides with family members or neighbors. But with everyone driving less now, she says those rides are harder to come by. To get to the bus stop, she rode her bike.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANKING)

RIDDLE: She loads it on the front of the bus before boarding. Twenty-five minutes later, she wheels her bike into the store.

THRASHER: I have a question. Can I park my bike while I do shopping in here? I don't have a lock for it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's probably fine as long as you park it kind of, you know...

RIDDLE: Thrasher can only fill one bag. That's all she'll be able to get home on her bike. She has one hour until the bus comes back and just $32 to spend. First stop - frozen foods.

THRASHER: Blueberries.

RIDDLE: Did you look at the price there?

THRASHER: Yeah, 3.99. I want to get the bigger one, but no, with everything else I need to get, I have to get the smaller one.

RIDDLE: How long will whatever you get today last you?

THRASHER: Oh, shoot. Well, just, you know, not long, you know - just a couple of days, probably, yeah.

RIDDLE: Back at the reservation, Thrasher takes her bike back off the bus. Then she puts her arms through the handles of the shopping bag.

THRASHER: Do this little makeshift and, you know, find ways to backpack it up.

RIDDLE: She says the 13 people in her household live on a food budget of about $500 a month in public assistance, plus whatever is left over from paychecks after other bills. The money's not stretching as far lately, but they're finding a way. She says no one will starve.

THRASHER: Things we got to do to get by, but it's all good.

RIDDLE: One thing her family has done to deal with inflation - they've told the kids, no more snacks, only meals. For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Warm Springs, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Katia Riddle