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Dalton Walker

Indian Country Today

Leaders of Indian Country’s largest reservation are determining how to best spend the COVID-19 relief money that was promised in early April and finally arrived days ago.

The Navajo Nation received about $600 million in federal CARES Act funding for coronavirus relief efforts on Wednesday, a day after the Treasury Department released a plan for distribution of some of the $8 billion set aside for Native people.

On Friday, President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer held a town hall on Facebook to discuss potential spending options. As many as 1,100 Facebook users were watching at a given time.

“There are certain criterias from Treasury. As I mentioned before, this is not monies that is for a free-for-all, spending spree, but more of dollars to help us out with COVID-19 relief,” Nez said.

The Navajo Nation has a Dec. 31 deadline to spend the money, he said.

The CARES Act stipulates that the relief funds can be used only to cover expenses incurred due to the coronavirus public health emergency from March 1 to Dec. 30. For details, click here.

Nez said his office is working with federal partners and congressional delegates on policies and regulations that need to be lifted or changed to better spend the money.

“If they can waive regulations to build a wall at the border, they should be able to waive regulations here within in Indian Country,” he said. “I’m not just speaking for Navajo. This is the same throughout the United States right now ⁠— 574 tribes are going to go through the same predicament as we are.”

The Navajo Nation has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus. As of Thursday, it had 88 coronavirus-related deaths and 2,757 positive cases, according to the Navajo Department of Health.

Nez said there is a need for more testing, more data gathering, money dedicated to the tribe’s epidemiology team to provide answers to coronavirus questions.

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Nez said he plans to meet Sunday with leaders from the legislative and judicial branches to determine how much money would go to immediate needs for staff like personal protection equipment and additional resources to help citizens. 

“It’s critical, Navajo people, that you hold the leadership accountable ⁠— and that's local chapter officials, that’s also council delegates and also president and vice president ⁠— to make sure that we don’t bog down $600 million in politics here in the Navajo Nation,” Nez said.

On Wednesday, Navajo Nation Speaker of the Council Seth Damon said the Budget and Finance Committee will work on initial legislation that outlines how relief money will reach programs and communities.

“Already, the Navajo Nation Council has read many of the comments by the public on social media, in our conversations with local chapter officials and across the many media channels covering the Navajo Nation’s COVID-19 response,” Damon said in a statement. “We need the Navajo People to register those comments with the Office of Legislative Services.”

In Friday’s town hall, Nez also talked about dedicating resources for needed clean water infrastructure and in case of a second coronavirus surge and future pandemics.

Nez also highlighted the need for reservation agriculture rather than relying on outside businesses for food, an economic opportunity for Navajo entrepreneurs to grow businesses, and housing manufacturing facilities to help ease homes with multiple generations living under one roof.

Telecommunication is another challenge for citizens. Nez said he wants to provide “better broadband and high-speed internet to folks at home” so they don't have to commute to areas on the reservation that provide an internet connection.

Nez said money for scholarships in the health care and public safety fields also is needed. 

The Treasury and Interior departments announced this week that $4.8 billion would be made available to "tribal governments in all states” based on population, expenses and other factors.

Funds for Alaska Native regional and village corporations are being held back until pending litigation relating to their eligibility is resolved.

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @daltonwalker