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Joaqlin Estus

The National Congress of American Indians budget task force says a fundamental change is needed in the way federal funding is allocated to tribes. So NCAI is developing principles for Congress to consider when funding tribes.

Tribal leaders repeatedly have spoken up at Congressional hearings about the hardships imposed by chronic Congressional neglect of federal obligations to tribes and citizens.

In a July 2020 Congressional hearing, NCAI President Fawn Sharp quoted a U.S. Civil Rights Commission report on the impact of broken promises on Native Americans. She said, “chronic underfunding leaves many basic needs in the Native American community unmet and contributes to the inequities observed in Native American communities.”

COVID threw that neglect into even sharper relief, she said.

The crisis created disparities that made Natives vulnerable to the pandemic, Sharp said, “and resulted in our communities having the highest per-capita COVID-19 infection rate in the United States.”

COVID also led to the formation of a loose coalition of tribes, advocates and advocacy organizations, said Tyler Scribner, Chickasaw Nation, speaking at the NCAI mid-year conference on June 13 in Alaska. He’s NCAI’s policy lead for federal revenue and appropriations. He said advocacy organizations and tribes continually grapple with the complexity of the Congressional appropriations process.

“Right now, Congress rolls out programs with all different sorts of parameters. They've got all sorts of restrictions. They've got filing requirements and reporting requirements, and there's a lack of consistency that creates a complex landscape for the operation of federal programs,” Scribner said.

Previous NCAI coverage:
National Congress of American Indians announces renewed vision
NCAI heads into midyear conference short its CEO
Opioid settlements to bring hundreds of millions to tribes

Also at the conference, Ron Allen, co-chair of the NCAI budget task force, and Jamestown S'Klallam chairman, gave an example of how Congress complicates things.

He said some funding programs have no accompanying statute that dictates how the money should be spent. Yet, “one of the best examples is the victims of crimes money. It ranges from $140 to 180 million a year and they try to tell us how to use it.” Allen said the federal government should give tribes the maximum discretion and flexibility on how to spend money to address specific problems unique to each tribe’s citizens. “It should come to us with no restrictions, leave it at that,” Allen said.

Scribner said the President's FY 2023 budget request to Congress calls for a historic shift in the paradigm of nation-to-nation relations. The change seeks to restore the promises made between our ancestors and the United States in several key programs, he said.

A clearer roadmap on how to deal with funding tribal nations is needed for Congress and the executive branch, Scribner said.

We want to “unify some of those foundational principles so that Congress and the administration can be on notice of those base formations for how federal programs should be formulated to provide those funding, to provide flexibility for those funding, and to promote tribal sovereignty in developing those programs as they're funded,” he said.

“We really want to develop a base set of policy positions across the very complex landscape of budget appropriations that's integrated not just around when appropriations are moving forward in those appropriations committees, but is a holistic cyclical approach that includes development and getting into the president's budget requests to Congress, being a part of those budget resolutions that set the stage for appropriations and ultimately a part of those appropriations laws,” Scribner said.

He said the draft principles include some found in NCAI resolutions as well as tribal responses to NCAI asking tribes to, “talk to us. What are the needs in your communities? What are the problems in your communities? What would work best for your communities?”

He said the NCAI budget task force, which is made up of tribal representatives, has developed 18 consensus draft policy statements for further discussion and development. Later the policy statements could be presented as a resolution for adoption by the delegates to NCAI. The policies would provide broad directions to the executive branch and to Congress on federal budgets and spending for tribal programs.

The draft principles are listed below. Scribner emphasizes these are draft principles that are being discussed and refined. To comment on the draft principles, email

Draft principles

1. Provide mandatory spending for programs that fulfill the trust and treaty obligations of the United States.

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2. Until such time that spending is made mandatory, provide advance appropriations for programs that fulfill the trust and treaty obligations of the United States.

3. Provide funding and authority to issue federal program tax credits directly to Tribal Nations and not as pass-through funding or authority through the states or another entity.

4. Provide formula-based, annually-recurring funding and authority to issue federal tax credits to Tribal Nations.

5. Eliminate barriers to program access such as dollar matching requirements, onerous asset collateralization, waivers of sovereign rights, and project size/parameters that favor projects that are illogical for tribal applicants and communities.

6. Exempt tribal funding from the outsized and harmful effects of sequestration, rescissions, and obligation limitation deductions on Tribal Nations.

7. Develop methodologies for program increases and funds distribution collaboratively with Tribal Nations to achieve their free, prior and informed consent.

8. Set deadlines for the timely distribution of funds and obligate funds to recipients in lump sums.

9. Provide Tribal Nations the maximum flexibility possible in their use of federal funds, including indirect costs as an eligible use of funds.

10. Make all federal funds for tribal programs, services, functions or activities available until expended.

11. Allow for multi-agency compacting, contracting, and grant award agreements with Tribal Nations that reduce or eliminate cost barriers to program application and negotiation.

12. Reduce, unify, simplify, and streamline program application requirements to the greatest extent possible to maximize federal investment in outcomes, instead of records keeping.

13. Reduce, unify, simplify, and streamline reporting requirements to the greatest extent possible to maximize federal investment in outcomes, instead of records keeping.

14. Require all federal departments or agencies with tribal programs to develop an annual estimate of the cost to fully fund the responsibilities of each tribal program within the department or agency.

15. Put strict and consistent confidentiality requirements on all tribal data collected by the federal government, including restrictions on internal use and transfer of tribal data between agencies and penalties for misuse.

16. Empower tribal governments to collect and/or certify their own data for use by the federal government.

17. Provide increased, government-wide, internal and external technical assistance and training to support the effective use of existing tribal program resources.

18. Expressly require the Indian Canons of Construction be applied to all funding made available for tribal programs.

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