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Joaqlin Estus

Indian Country Today

The U.S. Treasury Department relied on “grossly inaccurate” data in deciding how to divvy up billions of dollars in COVID-19 relief money for tribes, says a new Harvard study.

The agency ignored more up-to-date figures it required from tribes and instead went with outdated population data used by a federal housing program to distribute a portion of $8 billion in funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, according to Professor Joseph Kalt, co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development and one of several authors of the report released Monday.

Its “arbitrary and capricious” decision means some tribes that would have been eligible for millions or tens of millions of dollars instead are getting the minimum of $100,000, Kalt said.

"What's kind of flabbergasting to us is: Treasury, you have this data sitting right there. Why didn't you use it?” he said.

Congress allocated the $8 billion for tribes in late March. A court later ruled some of the money should be held back for Alaska Native corporations in case they are deemed eligible.

But it opened the door for the federal government to begin distributing $4.8 billion for federally recognized tribes.

On May 5, the secretaries of Treasury and Interior set a minimum of $100,000 for each tribe.

They laid out their plans to use population data used by the Indian Housing Block Grant program to distribute the $4.8 billion.

Kalt said the Treasury Department not only had easy access to more accurate numbers, it had asked for that data from tribes precisely to use in its decision-making.

Attempts to reach the Treasury Department for comment by phone and email Monday were not immediately successful.

Earlier this month, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and Interior Secretary David L. Bernhardt issued a joint statement saying they were pleased to begin making some relief funds available. “Our approach is based on the fair balancing of tribal needs,” the statement said.

To qualify for a share of the relief money, tribes were asked how many enrolled citizens they have, how many acres of land they own, and how many people they employ. The departments of Interior and Treasury told tribes it needed that data to come up with the allocations of dollars to each tribe.

“If Treasury used the April submissions of tribes — which was submitted by tribes under federal penalty for misrepresentation so you would expect them to be accurate — then Treasury would have had a solid case here,” Kalt said. “But for reasons no one knows, Treasury did not turn to any of the data the tribes all submitted in April."

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In the housing department's information, some tribes were over-counted, and some were undercounted, he noted. And some tribes were shown as having a population of zero, because they had never participated in a certain housing program.

“To give you an example, I had a tribe call me today, ‘Joe, the HUD data says we have 170 or 80 people. We have 1,083 people,’” Kalt said.

“If you look at the appendix, you can see how much it is all over the place.” 

Bryan Newland, Anishinaabe, is tribal chairperson for the Bay Mills Indian Community on the shores of Lake Superior. He said if tribes knew federal housing numbers were going to be used to determine allocation of relief funds, they would have checked to make sure they were accurate. “But we weren't given that opportunity,” Newland said.

The Bay Mills tribe received $2.1 million, which Newland said is far short of what’s needed to get everyone safely back to work.

“You really have to think about things in all of your operations that could be vectors for disease. And so that includes ventilation systems, everything down to door handles and what kind of doors you have, the proximity of people in your offices," he said. "You’re going to want to … really reduce the amount of physical contact and interpersonal contact that people have. And that all costs money. And as well as getting PPE for health workers and testing equipment." 

Newland said the shortage of funds is “really gonna hurt our ability to make investments in our buildings and work spaces in a way that keeps people safe."

That’s not the worst of it, though, he said. 

“The most frustrating part is that, you know, tribes worked really hard across the country with Democrats and Republicans in Congress to get that money appropriated," he said. "And the Treasury Department wasted no time in getting money out to states and local governments. And for some reason, tribes are still waiting for Treasury to follow the law. And it's just yet another episode in the long line of mistreatment of tribes. 

"And you would think by 2020, we would be beyond this. But it's very frustrating to see that the government continues to treat Indian Country this way.”

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Joaqlin Estus is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a longtime Alaska journalist.

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This story has been updated to add comment from the tribal chairperson of the Bay Mills Indian Community.