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Rob Capriccioso
Special to Indian Country Today

This spring, as tribal leaders across the U.S. joined federal officials for consultation calls and webinars to discuss potential coronavirus relief funding, Rodney Cawston tried time and again to be called on.

Cawston leads one of the largest Pacific Northwest tribes, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation, and still, he says, he was not addressed.

“We kept noticing that the administrators seemed to be picking and choosing who they were going to hear from,” he said. “I think tribal leaders who are more politically connected were getting through; it was pretty obvious.”

The federal government has granted a first round of funding from the $8 billion Congress set aside for tribes in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. And while tribes say any help brings much-needed relief, the process has also brought consternation and mistrust.

Some tribal leaders have complained about a lack of transparency and a system that pitted tribes against each other, and cited frustrations over endless bureaucratic hurdles and paperwork.

Others question whether politics played a role.

“Generally, there is fear,” said Cawston, who has been critical of the Trump administration on natural resource issues. “We always try to make our cases known, and I just hope that hasn’t contributed toward any retribution.”

He is not alone.

Bryan Newland is chairman of the Bay Mills Indian Community, one of five tribes in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He said his tribe fared "terribly" in the first round, getting $2.7 million, compared with some that received tens or hundreds of millions.


“Four of the tribes got very little, and we are not large gaming tribes up here, but a number of large gaming tribes [nationwide] did receive a lot of money."

He estimates that in all, Michigan tribes received around $2,700 per citizen, with the administration relying on a housing block grant formula that he believes has perennially underfunded tribes.

Newland is a fervent critic of President Donald Trump yet says he holds no illusions that the administration went so far as to single him out. Still, he did find himself questioning whether his past involvement in the Obama administration as a policy expert with the U.S. Interior Department has been or will be a factor.

“That has crossed my mind, and we have discussed this internally in my tribe whether things that I have publicly said and jobs that I have done in the past if the inspector general [for Interior] will be flyspecking our tribe’s budget,” Newland said.

Tribes, some of which have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, are looking to the federal government for support after shuttering casinos, tourist destinations and other major money-making operations. They lack a property tax base because their land is held in trust.

Some of the tension among tribal leaders stems from the federal government’s decision to include Alaska Native corporations in the relief funding, along with allegations of a conflict of interest by a senior Trump administration official involved in the process. 

Several tribes have sued the U.S. Treasury Department over the decision. And at the behest of several Democratic lawmakers, the Interior Department’s inspector general is investigating whether Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, who used to work for an Alaska Native Corporation, committed ethics violations.

Tara Sweeney, Phoenix, Wiring the Rez, January 31, 2020

Neither the Interior Department nor Sweeney responded to calls or emails seeking comment, but she has previously denied any wrongdoing. A federal judge has placed a portion of the tribal relief funding on hold while he reviews whether Alaska Native corporations should be included.

In announcing the first round of funds, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and Interior Secretary David L. Bernhardt issued a joint statement saying the approach was "based on the fair balancing of tribal needs.”

Not all tribes are disappointed in their allocations.

Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, about 30 miles from the Bay Mills tribe, has been vocal about his belief that his leadership on various national Indian-focused committees, meetings with the White House and his vice-chairmanship with the National Congress of American Indians played a major role in getting his tribe $72 million in coronavirus funding to date, according to his reelection campaign literature.

Payment has been one of the relatively few tribal leaders nationwide who have proudly trumpeted how much his tribe has received and how he believes it did so.

And Payment has been no fan of the Trump administration, posting online many times his criticism of its Indian-related policies.

Pictured: Aaron A. Payment, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

Shannon Keller O’Loughlin, director of the nonprofit Association on American Indian Affairs, says the administration could help alleviate any questions about politicking by simply being more transparent.

“If we all knew what was going on, then we could better advocate for one another,” O’Loughlin said. “We really should not be looking at this as a win/lose situation. We should try to support each other as tribal governments to make sure that we’re all getting access to the funding. Of course, transparency is the foundation of us being able to assert our sovereignty and our self-determination.”

As tribes continue to focus on getting a piece of the current funding, many are already looking to potential next rounds amid worries about a second wave of the virus.

They are advocating with their congressional delegates, and many are relying on the National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Finance Officers Association to be their advocates, knowing at the same time that both organizations sometimes have to tamper criticism of the administration and Congress so as not to alienate potential allies.

They also look to the United South and Eastern Tribes organization as well as the Association on American Indian Affairs to be advocates that may have more ability to rock the boat.

Still, they are coming up against strong headwinds.

Cawston, the Colville chairman, wouldn’t say how much his tribe has received so far but noted several smaller tribes got more money than his large reservation, and he doesn’t think the distribution was equitable.

Confederated Tribes of the Colville Seal.

Confederated Tribes of the Colville Seal.

During the initial federal meetings on coronavirus funding, Cawston says he got so concerned about being ignored that he sent Sweeney a message.

After that, he was finally called on during a consultation call.

“If I hadn’t done that, I don’t think I ever would have been heard,” he said.

Cawston says the requests to jump through multiple hoops just keep coming, and he hopes any future funding disbursements are better managed, perhaps by gathering regional tribal input and by streamlining requests to tribes across agencies.

And if there are future rounds of relief funding for tribes, he would like to see the political question of all this out of the picture.

“We need to be straight up and honest with each other,” Cawston said. “There can be no underlying issues here. This is a pandemic. Lives are at stake.”

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Rob Capriccioso, a citizen of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, is a journalist based in the Washington, D.C., metro area.


This story has been updated to include a link to a statement from Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and Interior Secretary David L. Bernhardt announcing the first round of tribal funding.

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