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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

A year ago as cases of COVID-19 cropped up, tribes began pivoting from business as usual to disease prevention. Some hoped the disease would pass them by. Others got hit hard right away.

They needed masks, personal protective equipment, people to staff roadblocks, testing supplies to detect COVID-19 and information for outreach. Food became a concern. Kids needed better internet services for studying at home.

Soon, they needed ventilators and respiratory therapists—more health care workers of all kinds. Plus, places where sick people could quarantine away from their family. Mental health services.

All that came on top of a lack of clean drinking water, overcrowding in homes, poor phone service, inadequate internet bandwidth and other long-standing problems.

In March, Congress allocated $8 billion to tribal governments via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, often called the CARES Act. The law was enacted in March with a provision the Trump administration had to get the money to tribes within 30 days. That didn’t happen. Many tribes were still waiting for their checks in late June.

Still, the funds came with a deadline: spend it by Dec. 31, 2020 or lose it. And if it were spent incorrectly, tribes had to pay it back.

It could only be used to reimburse tribes for COVID-related expenditures made between March 27 and the end of the year, and for items that were not included in the tribe’s regular budget. Other rules on how it could and couldn’t be spent evolved.

Tribes worked overtime to spend the money on justifiable expenses, all while lobbying for an extension. On Dec. 12, with the deadline just weeks away, Congress passed a new law extending the deadline by a year.

Here’s a look back at what a few tribes did to help their people.

Alaska tribes

Anchorage Tribes of Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska President Tasha Hotch, Tlingit, said some families were experiencing hardship before the pandemic, and problems piled up as people lost their jobs. As incomes shrank, people took in their relatives. “Sometimes, we saw four or five families in the household,” said Hotch.

The Anchorage tribe has no paid staff, but volunteers stepped up. Hotch said the council’s “regular engagement with our tribal community is maybe 20 families, but we were getting requests from 50, 60 families for things.

“So for us that was, I think, really nice and it made us feel good. People who normally didn't reach out to us [were] getting engaged with activities or … looking to us to provide assistance. And that's one of the biggest goals of why people get involved with our tribe, is to help our people.”

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The tribe helped pay utility bills or rent, up to $500 per household. It gave $50 grocery store gift cards and delivered food packages over the holidays. It paid tribal citizens to make masks and distributed those.

“... we saw some families that just needed a little extra help with paying for extra internet or some school supplies, those things that we don't normally keep in bulk at home, but now needed because our kids were at home doing school,” Hotch said.

She said the council dropped off food items and volunteers handed out donated items. "... we did purchase some arts and crafts things for people that requested those kinds of things to help with some of that fatigue of not getting that social interaction that we're used to, that, I think, was one of the bigger things that people were challenged with, ‘cause not everyone was experiencing job loss.”

“Some of the folks were saying, ‘you know, it's been a long time since I've seen anyone as I'm trying to stay home.’ ‘It's nice you guys are providing assistance to folks.’ And really, I think expressing the need for that connection, 'I sure miss seeing everyone,’” Hotch said.

Tatiana Ticknor, Tlingit/Dena’ina/Deg Xinag, carries her son Sage Weaver along with a gift bag of food from Anchorage Tlingit and Haida. (Photo courtesy of Tasha Hotch)

“I think that really helps us to try to look at ways that provide interaction. Even, you know, we have a couple of folks making phone calls to the people and just checking in on them, you know, realizing that not everyone is connected to the internet, or tech savvy to join us when we do Zoom meetings and things like that. And they say it's nice to hear someone's voice or familiar face.”

She said volunteers also helped citizens connect to other services.

“When we were doing those programs where we were delivering things we were putting in, I think 40 hours a week on, you know, occasion with the folks, letting them know we're coming, making sure we had what they needed and when we dropped it off to them. And it was really nice, you know, people saying any little bit helps, but just seeing the relief on people's faces as we were able to do that.”

She said giving is “ingrained in us through our culture,” and volunteers had to insist that people not give them gifts in return.

Juneau-based Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska Chief Operating Officer Roald Helgeson said the council received about $28 million in CARES funding, which included $150,000 in state and private funding.

He said, due to getting the money late, the resulting tight timeframe was an issue. “Access to goods, supplies and contractors was a challenge on short notice and it took time to build out new services that meet the compliance requirements …”

The council provided one-time financial assistance with up to $500 per household for education, retraining, rent, mortgage and utilities. It offered small business loans of up to $5,000 for COVID-related expenses. Tlingit & Haida also deployed emergency response supplies to communities. It created a Tribal Emergency Operations Center, and provided financial relief to tribal citizens impacted by COVID-19.

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“We were prepared to use nearly all of the funds within the timeframe, but also ready to pivot if an extension was passed, Helgeson said. “The extension will allow more tribal citizens to realize relief.”

Chickasaw Nation - logo

Chickasaw Nation’s creativity

Last month, KFOR reported on the Chickasaw Nation’s creativity in making use of CARES funding.

The tribe “opted to purchase tiny homes for people to quarantine in,” wrote reporter Hunter McEachern. The homes are 399 square feet, “and come furnished with full amenities, such as cable, wifi and even an emergency phone networked to the Chickasaw Nation.”

Calling them “Caring Cottages,” Chickasaw Nation Lt. Gov. Chris Anoatubby told McEachern, “we’re thankful to have them to be able to keep our citizens safe and our households safe.”

The Chickasaw Nation also prepared an additional site care facility on its medical campus.

“If our hospital or other hospitals in the area exceed capacity, we’ll be able to take additional patients in that, and it will hold an additional 48 patients if we have to do that,” said Chickasaw Nation Secretary of Health Dr. Charles Grim.

When the additional facility is not in use for providing care to patients, it will be used as a simulation training facility for nurses and physicians.

The two facilities have been undergoing construction for around the last seven months. Chickasaw Nation leaders said they plan to open them in about a month.

The tribe subsidized virtual mental health resources to provide 22,000 virtual visits since March. It renovated an old Kmart to serve as an emergency operations center. It also houses coronavirus-related activities like testing and vaccinations, and storage for Personal Protective Equipment, bottled water and other supplies.

“We purposefully set it up so that we could do mass testing and/or mass vaccination there,” Grim said.

In this April 27, 2020, photo, a school bus is driven through Oljato-Monument Valley, Utah, on the Navajo reservation. Even before the pandemic, people living in rural communities and on reservations were among the toughest groups to count in the 2020 census. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The Navajo Nation, the largest land-based tribe in the nation, received $714 million. The Navajo Times reports the tribe used funds for COVID testing, contract tracing, and to house people in quarantine. CARES dollars also covered hazard pay, food, and special cleaning.

It was able to make the argument that it be allowed to use CARES funding to remedy underlying conditions on the reservation that contribute to poor health.

So funding went to facilities and infrastructure for power lines, solar power, and water systems

Some of the funding went into administration, for the people who had to create and administer the contracts, technical support and communications, as well as health care providers.

— Navajo Nation president approves $475 million in CARES Act funding to provide immediate COVID-19 relief funding for water projects, power line projects, and more
— Navajo Nation Council approves COVID-19 chapter heavy equipment purchases and funding for emergency water projects

The Navajo Nation signed contracts and pushed to get funds spent by the deadline. It had crews working overtime, 7 days a week, for instance, building infrastructure for broadband services.

Still, the tribal council early on saw it would not be able to use all the money by the deadline. It created a Hardship Assistance Fund. Any unspent funds as of Dec. 28 would go into it. 

“Our programs did an outstanding job with the short amount of time,” Nez told the Navajo Times. He said the tribe still had projects listed but ran out of time. "These projects could’ve helped elders, disabled individuals with water, electricity, and permanent projects.” Unspent funds were transferred to the Hardship Assistance Fund.

Individuals in need received up to $1,350 for adults and $450 for minors.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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