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Dalton Walker

Indian Country Today

For Jennie Collins, any financial relief can go a long way in the COVID-19 era.

Collins learned earlier this month that her tribe planned to directly disburse a portion of its relief funds to citizens' pockets. The aid comes from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act.

Collins, Ponca, had worked for an inventory company before being furloughed and depended on her savings and unemployment dollars to get by. Now, some unexpected but needed dollars are coming from the tribe.

“All the rainy days that I saved up for was almost gone. I was completely out of work going on two months before my unemployment hit,” she said. The tribe’s disbursement is “giving us a little bit of breathing room to help with grocery, electricity, rent, things we fell behind in.”

Since tribes started to receive a portion of the $8 billion set aside for them in the CARES Act, some have made public announcements about how much relief money they received and how they would spend it.

The Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma was one of the first in Indian Country to say it was helping citizens directly with money. The tribe made a Facebook announcement on May 15 that it received $6 million and asked citizens to update addresses. The announcement was signed by the tribe’s secretary treasurer, Carla Carney.

“This council puts the needs of members first,” Carney said. “We strive to help our members all across the country in this time of uncertainty.”

Requests to the Ponca Tribe for additional comment were unsuccessful.

(Related article: Report: ‘Grossly inaccurate’ data used to divvy up relief funds for tribes)

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and the White Mountain Apache Tribe announced similar direct payments to citizens.

White Mountain Apache Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood said council approved the direct payment for a variety of reasons, including a high unemployment rate and its rural location. She also noted “many” citizens didn’t receive the $1,200 stimulus check from the federal government because “most don’t file taxes.”

“The tribe does not have financial resources to cover unforeseen and/or emergency needs of its tribal members during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Lee-Gatewood said in an email. “The only administratively feasible means of providing emergency relief assistance to tribal members is through direct payments to all those who have been impacted by the pandemic.”

The tribe is also developing a budget to address immediate needs. Two high priorities are making sure first responders and frontline personnel have personal protective equipment, and expanding broadband capacity to help first responders, schools and essential services.

Even though the tribe did receive money, it may have been cut short of needed funds.

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Lee-Gatewood said tribal enrollment is a little more than 17,000, and the Indian Housing Block Grant program lists citizenship at 13,000.

A Harvard study said the Treasury Department relied on “grossly inaccurate” data in deciding how to divvy up the first round of relief money for tribes. The housing block program data was used.

“There always seems to be more need than money available to fill those needs available,” she said.

White Mountain has implemented a curfew and stay-at-home order, and traditional ceremonies and religious gatherings have been put on hold. As of Friday, the tribe has reported 538 positive coronavirus cases. The tribe has six deaths related.

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe said it was using stimulus funding to give to citizens and that there will be no per capita payment in June.

Indian Country Today did not receive responses from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. 

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation received $282 million in funding. Acting Secretary of the Nation and Commerce Terra Branson shared details in a video about the funding and distribution strategy. She said the tribe is vetting the idea of a payment to its 90,000 citizens.

The Little Shell Chippewa Tribe said its using the bulk of the $25 million it received to construct a health care facility.

“This funding offers a unique one-time opportunity to jump start the tribe’s vision of providing quality healthcare services to our tribal citizens,” read a recent announcement posted to Facebook.

(More information: Indian Country's COVID-19 syllabus -- Data, story summaries, lists of closures, resources)

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

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