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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Tribal leaders are struggling to spend the $8 billion in COVID-19 relief allocated earlier this year by Congress, as changing federal rules and guidelines raise concerns they could be forced to pay back any money misspent.

Although the funds are needed for supplies, equipment, hiring and efforts to keep members safe from the coronavirus, many tribes are awaiting clarification before dipping into the pot of federal money, tribal leaders said recently at a panel discussion on coronavirus relief hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.

Prairie Island Indian Community President Shelley Buck, Mdewakanton Dakota, in Minnesota, said the uncertainty has left much of the money still unused.

“We’re almost afraid to use the money because we don’t want to have to pay it back,” she said. “So we’re still trying to make a plan of what we’re going to use it on, and hope and pray that the Treasury doesn’t change the guidelines after-the-fact on us.

“So, it’s definitely a confusing time right now. And, it's time that we should be spending on actually preventing COVID from coming into our reservations and protecting our people,” she said.

Tribes have until Dec. 31 to spend the relief funds for tribes allocated by Congress in February. The recent discussion paired congressional and tribal leaders to discuss the coronavirus relief efforts.

Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana said Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act during an emergency, and the haste shows.

“We moved fast; we needed to move fast,” he said. “But the only downside of that is you're moving based on a set of assumptions that seem to be true at that time, but obviously have proven not to be the case in terms of the length of the pandemic as an example.”

In February, officials expected the pandemic to be gone in a few months, so a December deadline seemed reasonable. Daines said the act needed more language explaining congressional intent.

“We've got to be better as lawmakers and have clarifying intent so you don't leave it up to administrative agencies trying to figure out what Congress was trying to do,” he said.

Daines said the next relief bill should fix problems that cropped up in the first one, though he doesn’t expect another bill to pass Congress until after the Nov. 3 election.

U.S. Representative Sharice Davids, Hochunk, said she’s hoping a new bill will pass before then and will clarify that funds can go toward long-term needs.

“Washing your hands is a huge piece” of prevention, the Kansas Democrat said. “And there are tribes who have large infrastructure projects that they could get running water to their tribal members if they could know for sure that they could use the funding for that. And right now we've got tribes who are not sure how they can use the funding, not sure if they're going to be able to get the money spent.”

Nathan Yaa Ndakin Yeil McCowan, Tlingit, chairman of the Alaska Native Village Corporations Association, said water and sewer facilities are lacking or hanging on by a thread in dozens of Alaska communities. To fill that need, however, construction would have to have started months ago while temperatures were above freezing.

Gila RIver Indian Community Governor Stephen Lewis, Akimel O’otham and Pee-Posh, speaking during a panel on COVID-19 relief.

Alaska has benefitted from its isolation, he said. Many Alaska villages are accessible only by boat or plane.

“We have a double-edged sword in Alaska, where we can create islands of isolation within each one of the communities, which is good as long as the virus is out,” McCowan said. “But the moment the virus comes in, that sort of flips the other way, and we're now in a position of not being able to adequately meet the healthcare needs and the other vital needs of the community.

“I'm preparing for what happens when you have a village that's completely isolated and has an outbreak, and can't get food, can't get medicine.” McGowan said.

He said another problem unique to Alaska is that tribes have received their funding, but Alaska Native corporations haven’t. Legal action is now pending.

”We're waiting to see the case work its way through the appellate (appeals court), to determine eligibility. So we're in a situation where only about a third of the money or 40 percent of the money that was allocated to Alaska has actually been received.”

Chairman Alvin “A.J.” Not Afraid Jr., president of the Crow Tribe of Indians, said his tribe wants to use the funds to provide full Internet coverage on the reservation, which would help with education, law enforcement and emergency services.

He said the tribe has used some relief funds to buy laptop computers for schoolchildren who are trying to learn remotely.

“The distance learning, we're kind of using that as a tool to kind of pioneer for some of the other infrastructure that needs to also be created and built,” Not Afraid said.

He said people in his part of the country are now more aware of the gravity of the threat of COVID-19.

“What the people now are finally believing is, ‘Oh, well, my dad or my grandfather, or my uncle, my aunt, my children, they're in the hospital,’ and now they're finally taking it serious,” he said. “Now they're adhering to various executive orders that we put out from our health department.”

Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Lewis, Akimel O’otham and Pee-Posh, said his tribe has put money, not necessarily federal dollars, into payroll.

“We took a big financial hit for that but that's who we are as a community,” Lewis said. “We're a family made up of our employees, of our tribal members and non-tribal members but we made that commitment early on. Looking back, we still stand by that, myself and my lieutenant governor, my council, we still stand by that.”

Lewis said tribal leaders are aware of the virus’ impact on the tribe’s 23,000 enrolled members, about half of whom live on the reservation near Phoenix and Tucson.

“Every member lost, that's a grandparent, that's an elder, that's a mother or father, that's an aunt or uncle, that's a brother or sister,” Lewis said, “and sometimes we get numb to that.”

Buck, with the Prairie Island Indian Community, said her tribe closed its casinos, the largest employer in the county, in the interest of public health.

The casino has since reopened to 50 percent capacity, but the tribe has continued to cover employee benefits.

In Congress, meanwhile, talks broke down in August over a second relief bill, as differences remain between the price tags the House, Senate and the president are willing to pay.

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Joaqlin Estus is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today. Based in Anchorage, she’s a longtime Alaska journalist.

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