Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Tribes have another year to spend last year's COVID-19 relief funds.

Last year's Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act allocated $8 billion to tribes. However, because the money was not distributed until early summer (and some of it is still tied up in litigation), tribes were hard-pressed to get the funds committed by the Dec. 31 deadline.

A new deadline of Dec. 31, 2021, was set by the $2.3 trillion Consolidated Appropriations 2021 Act signed into law on Dec. 12. 

It set aside $3.3 billion for COVID response programs providing services to tribes, including:

  • $1 billion for broadband
  • $1 billion to the Indian Health Service to distribute to federal, Tribal, and urban health programs for vaccine distribution, testing, tracing, and mitigation

It also provided funding for other Indian Country priorities.

  • $10 billion for childhood early development
  • $15 billion to Community Development Financial Institutions
  • $3.4 billion for the bureaus of Indian Affairs and Indian Education, a 5 percent increase over last year
  • And funding for programs ranging from housing, funeral benefits, and tribal colleges and universities, to substance abuse, diabetes, and mental health programs.

In a Dec. 22 statement, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, highlighted other programs he had championed for inclusion in the bill, such as support for Native languages and culture, and provisions to address the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls crisis. 

The New Mexico Democrat, who decided not to seek reelection in 2020, said working alongside tribes "to advance Indian Country’s priorities has been one of the highest honors of my life, and I am proud to have secured so many priorities in my final days here in the Senate.”

On the Senate floor in December, Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska gave an example of the logistics the new funding would support. She had received a video from the head of the subregional clinic in St. Marys, a predominantly Yup’ik village of 567 people in western Alaska. It showed the physician’s assistant, community health aides and other clinic personnel getting vaccinated.

“It was 13 degrees out and the ‘mobile office’ where the vaccine was administered was inside a chartered Cessna 208 Caravan [a single-engine plane often described as 'rugged' or 'utilitarian'] sitting on the airport tarmac there in St. Marys,” Murkowski said. After staff watched for potential reactions to the vaccination and saw none, the plane took off for its next village destination.

A villager receives a COVID-19 vaccination in a van on the tarmac in western Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Consortium, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, State of Alaska.)

Murkowski said that for small businesses struggling to keep their doors open, additional funding is included for the Paycheck Protection Program.

“The bill also temporarily provides $300 per week supplemental unemployment insurance as well as a $600 economic impact payments for many Americans who are struggling to make ends meet," she said. "The bill includes funding to support health care providers, schools, renters facing eviction, the Postal Service, and the food insecure. … There is still work to be done, but the targeted relief measures included in this bill will deliver direct and timely results for those who have been hit hardest by the pandemic.”

Murkoswki said the 2021 consolidated appropriations bill had come after five or six weeks of intensive work by a bipartisan, bicameral team, and was attached to an omnibus appropriations bill that had been a year in the making. The total package added up to $908 billion.

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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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