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Mark Trahant

Indian Country Today

The American Rescue Plan Act is a $1.9 trillion package designed to mitigate the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic on the country. It directs money to states and tribes. It includes direct payments to individuals and tax credits for the working poor.

The new law may be the most comprehensive social investment since President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society or President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. No Republicans voted for the measure.

The new law includes $31 billion plus for tribal nations, representing the single largest investment in the tribal nations in U.S. history. It’s what Senate Indian Affairs Chairman Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, called “a down payment on the federal government’s trust responsibility to Native communities and will empower American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians to tackle COVID-19’s impacts on their communities.”

But while $31 billion is a lot of money. It’s not equal to what tribes lost during the pandemic. A Harvard study last year looked at the economic impact of tribes and tribal enterprises.

Researchers for the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, Randall Akee, Eric Henson, Miriam Jorgensen and Joseph Kalt, reported that the COVID‐19 crisis posed an immediate threat to three decades of steady improvement in economic conditions across Indian Country. That study estimated that, directly and through spillover effects into surrounding communities, tribal gaming and non‐gaming enterprises and tribal governments together support more than 1.1 million jobs and more than $49.5 billion in annual wages and benefits for American workers.

“I sort of see it as investment and I also see it as relief,” said Carla Fredericks, Mandan Hidatsa Arikara, she is executive director of the Christensen Fund.”When I looked at all of this over the course of this week, I was really thinking about how for the first time in a really targeted way, the tribes are really being treated much like state and local governments. And so, you know, the bulk of this money is COVID relief money and how the tribes will use that I'm sure will be to their own sovereign and self-determined ends, which will, I think necessarily, have a really strong investment theme. But just like state and local governments, the tribes are really hurting and this bill really reflects a response to that.”

Nick Tilsen, Oglala Lakota, is president and CEO of the NDN Collective, a philanthropic and community development organization based in South Dakota. He sees the Rescue Act legislation as “a massive opportunity.”

He said the fact that the $2 billion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, came first gave tribes a pause to create infrastructure. When that money started flowing there was not much in the way of mechanics required to spend the funds. First that had to happen, then tribes could start to be strategic about how the money was spent.

“You think of the amount of land, facilities, buildings, and assets that were purchased even in the first CARES act,” he said. So as the pandemic comes to an end tribes will be able to capture those unrestricted assets such as buildings that will work for regular programming.

“And then you couple that with all this new money coming in, this is massive,” Tilsen said. “I look at it as an opportunity for people to breathe a little bit as we recover, but done the right way, this could be, maybe this could be a momentous impact on tribal nations.”

Tribes were already challenged by building that infrastructure for CARES Act spending. Some had plans and spent money quickly, making sure to meet the federal government’s first deadline. Other tribes were slower and still had reserves when the federal government changed its rules and left open the spigot.

That caused a lot of tough times, said Wayne Ducheneaux, Cheyenne River, executive director of Native Governance Center. When the deadline was extended some tribes still “had some money left over and were able to move forward with thoughtful long-term projects to create some systemic change for their nations.”

But other tribes, thinking the money would end at the end of the year, spent it on “a patchwork” and “spent as fast as they could.”

So a question Ducheneaux asks is how many tribes will pick up where they left off and use the funding in a “strategic way, moving forward to amplify the work that they're already doing?”

He said there should be technical assistance and support to make sure that tribes can use the funding to “make a pretty big bang for this amount of buck.”

A recent survey of 23 tribal leaders by the Native Governance Center asked the question, “what's going great with your tribal nation?” Ducheneaux said the answers were interesting because a lot of tribes said they need technical assistance helping them work through issues.

Ducheneaux said this survey was proof that the programs directed at building a tribal nation's capacity are especially important right now.

Comprehensive funding models

What makes the Rescue Act different is the comprehensive nature of the federal funds.

“There's a lot of really thoughtful pieces in this legislation about thinking about the day-to-day impacts on Native people,” said Fredericks. “Money directly to IHS, not only COVID money, but money to deal with mental health issues, tele-healthm urban Indian health. Just issues that have not been well-funded for some time and money for Native Hawaiians and people who sometimes get left out of these larger legislative processes.”

In addition to the $20 billion that will directly go to tribes, there is also $6 billion that will bolster Indian health systems, including money for COVID-19 vaccines, testing, tracing, mitigation, and workforce expenses. But on top of that there is $2 billion for lost third party billing reimbursements, money for facilities, purchased care, water delivery, and $420 million for mental health.

Urban Indian health care will get $84 million and $20 million for Native Hawaiian health care centers.

And some $2 billion will be directed toward programs that serve families and children, including tribal child care programs and assistance to families.

Another billion will go toward education programs, including tribal colleges. And $1.24 billion for housing programs.

Early on in the pandemic, tribes sent the signal that language preservation was critical. Some of the early vaccines, for example, were reserved for elders who spoke a language. That measure is preserved in the legislation with a $20 million fund to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on Native languages through the Administration for Native Americans.

Tilsen, who has managed community development projects nationally as well as the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, sees another opportunity to improve digital access to Native communities.

“I think the broadband thing is huge,” he said. “I think it's around $1 billion, out of the $30, $31.2 billion that's dedicated for broadband. That's massive.”

He said he already received an email from a local cooperative saying that broadband is coming to his community.

There's a lot of infrastructure that is there,” he said. “We’re actually more positioned to take advantage of this than let's say the American Recovery Act during the Obama administration. That took time to build out that infrastructure to implement those dollars.”

He said going forward we have to think about changing the short-term and long-term goals. Perhaps that means instead of thinking of this as new money, implementing plans already in place for long-term sustainability.

In addition to the money, perhaps the most significant shift is the way Congress is looking at tribes going forward. Fredericks said the relief act is “a narrative issue” because Congress is finally recognizing tribes and their importance to the American fabric.

She said the language from Sen. Schatz about this being a “downpayment” is particularly powerful.

“It’s not the whole amount of money that the tribes need or are owed. But it's a start,” she said. More than $31 billion is a “pretty significant amount of funds.”

But the bigger picture is that Congress is how this law “paves the way for the tribes to really step into their rightful role as being treated by the federal government with that trust responsibility and as a government to government entity.”