'Indian Country is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19'

National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp and CEO Kevin Allis pose at the group’s annual State of Indian Nations address in Washington in February. Sharp moderated a town hall Tuesday on the federal response to COVID-19 in Indian Country. (Photo by McKenzie Sadeghi/Cronkite News)

Cronkite News

A town hall explores the congressional response to the pandemic

McKenzie Sadeghi

Cronkite News

Tribes have been severely hit by the coronavirus but have received only a fraction of the help they need from the federal government, said lawmakers, who called the impact on businesses and health on reservations “particularly worrisome.”

The National Congress of American Indians town hall on the congressional response to COVID-19 in Indian Country came one day after a federal court blocked the Treasury Department from giving relief funds to Alaska corporations that other tribes said were not legitimate tribal governments.

Lawmakers on the call said that is just one of the problems faced by tribes, which have had to fight for access to funding while having underlying health care and economic problems ignored.

“This is a very trying time in Indian Country, and it’s always been, you know, difficult I think dealing with the federal government and Indian Country,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Arizona, one of the lawmakers in the town hall. “But particularly during this pandemic we’ve seen a lot of the underlying problems that have consistently been around.”

Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minnesota, said tribes face barriers that include health, education, jobs and housing, all of which have “really exacerbated now with what is happening with the coronavirus pandemic.”

That was echoed by Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana.

“When we take a look at the older populations combined with the high levels of diabetes and heart condition issues, it was very important that we made sure there were dollars allocated to help Indian Country,” Daines said.

“Indian Country is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19,” Daines said. “It was so important that we set aside dollars there to get to the tribes.”

But even that was a fight.

Congress included $8 billion in aid to tribal governments – well shy of the $20 billion that was initially asked for, according to lawmakers on the call. Congressional leaders also had to push the Small Business Administration to make sure that tribal enterprises were eligible for the Payment Protection Program, a $600 billion fund designed to help small employers survive the shutdown

Gallego said while some tribal enterprises received funding, it took longer than it should have and was a “total disgrace.” He said he is concerned some tribal casinos won’t be able to reopen because funding was stalled.

And tribes themselves said they fear the federal funds will go to non-tribal entities. That was the claim in a lawsuit filed by a number of tribes against Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin after he said Alaska Native Corporations – for-profit entities in Alaska tribal villages – would be eligible for funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.

The tribes argued that the ANCs do not meet the definition of an “Indian tribe” or “tribal government.” U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta for the District of Columbia agreed, ruling Monday that the Treasury could start disbursing the $8 billion to tribes Tuesday as scheduled, but could not give any of the money to ANCs for now.

Smith and Gallego said they do not oppose ANCs, but do not think they qualify as tribal governments. Gallego said he is “encouraging Secretary Mnuchin to start releasing that aid to tribal governments and not wait for this adjudication to happen because we don’t have enough time.”

Calls seeking comment from Treasury and the Bureau of Indian Affairs were not immediately returned Tuesday.

The Indian Health Service pointed to a statement from last week, in which it said it had distributed more than $1 billion to tribal health care programs. That include funding for tele-health, sanitation services, medical equipment and test kits in tribal areas.

Gallego said Congress intended the money allocated for Indian Country to go to tribal governments and not for-profit corporations, saying there are “other pots of money they could use that would not detract from some of our tribal governments.” In the future, he said, Congress will have to be “extra vigilant and over-communicate” to government agencies to make sure tribal governments receive the right funding.

Smith said she is glad that they were able to get funding for Indian Country in the CARES Act but is “very disappointed that the $8 billion is not being allowed to be used to replace lost tribal revenue.” The Minnesota senator said tribal governments voluntarily moved to close their casinos, costing them jobs and revenues.

“The issue of replacing lost revenue and helping local governments including sovereign governments like tribes … I think is the big debate we need to have,” Smith said.

Smith said it is not a matter of negotiating, but “a question of living up to our treaty responsibilities.” That was echoed by Gallego.

“The federal government itself has largely abdicated its trust responsibility toward our tribal governments,” he said. “It is a shame that it took us so long, for us to turn around and bring money back to Indian Country.”

Still, he said, the one positive to come out of this is that Indian Country is now getting the recognition that it deserves.

“As this has gone on, I’ve seen many other members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, that are now consistently asking … ‘What’s happened to Indian Country?'” Gallego said. “I think this is going to be something that we should really build on.”

He and Smith both said they are optimistic.

“Indian Country is resilient, they will survive,” Gallego said. “They will thrive, and they will come out of this just as strong as they were before.”

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