Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Nearly $2 trillion is being injected into the economy to help with pandemic recovery.

“There's a lot of money moving really fast and it's hard to keep track of it all. But, just to do a real quick recap, the American Relief Plan Act passed about $1.9 trillion. Out of that $1.9 trillion, about $32.2 billion is set aside and that's dedicated funding for tribes or broadly Indian country,” said attorney Burton Warrington, who is Menominee, HoChunk, and Prairie Band Potawatomi. He was previously with the office of the Interior assistant secretary of Indian affairs and now is president of Indian Ave, an investment firm.

Warrington continues to share information at biweekly webinars hosted by the Harvard School of Government Ash Center. The most recent webinar was June 23.

“It’s really important for people to understand this ($32.2 billion for Indian Country) isn't the only money out there,” Warrington said. “And it’s really incumbent on the tribes to go out and get that money. You may have to compete for it with a lot of other governments or with other entities.”

Panelists said the funds will go to hundreds of programs and nearly every federal agency, and from there to institutions and individuals. Agencies are setting varying deadlines to apply for funds. Treasury direct funds have a 2024 deadline to get the money committed.

(Previous: Tribal leaders, experts talk American Rescue Plan’s impact)

Guidelines for some of the funding are evolving, said Maria Howeth, of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, a tribal specialist at eCivis, a grant management business.

(With) “all of the stimulus spending, (tribes) are getting such an influx and a huge amount of funding coming in that they want to make sure that it's being spent in accordance with the way the law comes out,” Howeth said. “But with the guidance on the laws being slower than the money coming out, sometimes the funding sits there for a little bit before they are even comfortable with how they can utilize this funding.”

Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear of the Osage Nation said expenditures under last year’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, showed that tribes could set priorities for their specific needs and pivot to handle the fast-moving emergency response to COVID-19.

“We know how to distribute the money resources once we get them. We don't need to go through a federal bureaucracy to do that,” he said.

The best approach for agencies, Standing Bear said, would be to “just provide the funds to the (tribal) governments” with the only rule being to just show it’s for COVID-19 response. And let us do what we gotta do.”

He said as with the CARES Act, the 151 pages of guidelines for the Rescue Act funding are unclear. “And if you don't follow them correctly, your treasury department warns that tribes could have to repay those funds.”

“I just went ahead and said to the treasury department, we need these 151 pages (of guidelines) just to be smaller in size and give us more discretion without concern of having to repay money and be audited by treasury,” Standing Bear said. “ … to send money into these agencies, which are going to go to us at the end of the day, it seems to me that there's a lot of bureaucratic cost involved and strings attached, which really are unnecessary."

Standing Bear doesn’t want to see tribes tied up in administrative appeals or court acts.

“Neither the American taxpayers, or the Indian tribes who are taxpayers too, should get involved in bureaucratic arguments. But we're trying our best,” he said. “I think that should be the test: have you tried your best?"

Stacey Ecoffey, of the Oglala Lakota at Pine Ridge, is principal advisor for tribal affairs in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which houses the Indian Health Service.

“Through the (American Rescue Plan) funding, we were able to see an additional $6 billion to the Indian Health Service, which goes out through their normal mechanisms for funding,” Ecofeey said.

Other additions were an extra $20 million for Native languages and emergency grants for Indian Country, Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians, and a new water program at the health and human services department for children and families, she said.

The administration for children and families, among other offices, has technical assistance programs where tribes can find out more about grant programs, and particularly how the health and human services department grants can assist other programs, for instance, for water and sanitation projects, she said.

Heather Dawn Thompson, of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, is director of the Office of Tribal Relations at the Department of Agriculture. She said the pandemic overwhelmed health systems in parts of the country, and exposed weaknesses in the food supply chain when processing plants closed or slowed, and deliveries were hampered.

“One of the themes that we saw in the last year or two with COVID is tribes rethinking their food and their investment in their food infrastructure. We've seen folks spend their money on greenhouses and, and farms, tribal farms, tribal bison herds, meat processing, plants, Indigenization of farming and ranching practices, returning to foods that grow in that region more Indigenously and don't take as much water in order to produce,” Thompson said.

“As you're thinking about what your strategy for deployment of your resources is, we encourage you to consider investment in your food infrastructure,” Thompson said.

That’s just what the Osage Nation did, Standing Bear said.

“A year ago in late March, my director of operations came into this room here and said, ‘Chief, we have no meat for our 200 children in our early learning programs or for the elderly programs. And it looks like we're not going to be able to get any meat for some weeks out,’” Standing Bear said.

He said the Osage received $45 million in CARES Act funds and put a big chunk of it into its food sovereignty initiative. It went to a food processing plant which cost $20 million, new greenhouses and the tribe’s farm, and fencing for the tribe’s ranch for $9 million.

The agriculture department’s Thompson said the agency also will be looking at ways to Indigenize commodity foods, to add wild rice, say, or salmon.

“In addition to food, broadband infrastructure is one of these areas that I would strongly recommend people think about at the NTIA (National Communications and Information Administration) with the Department of Commerce,” Thompson said.

“Many of you know that they received a billion dollars explicitly just for broadband in Indian country and those broadband grants -- so not loans, but those broadband grants -- every federally recognized tribe that applies will get $500,000 minimum,” she said.

Tribes can also apply for infrastructure grants for up to $50 million.

“If you leverage that and combine it with treasury funds that you have, you can really make a huge impact in some of our rural isolated communities that have broadband infrastructure issues,” Thompson said.

Thompson said a $5 billion loan forgiveness program for farmers and ranchers is perhaps the best program being offered by the agriculture department. However, a federal temporary restraining order has put that program on hold.

Panelists listed some of the other departments and programs getting funding for tribes and Native people which include:

  • Departments of Health and Human Services — $7.6 billion
  • Interior — $2 billion
  • Housing and Urban Development — $750 million
  • Education — $422 million
  • Treasury — $35 million
  • Agriculture — $20 million
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