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Dalton Walker

Indian Country Today

Tribes will start receiving more than half of the $8 billion in relief money set aside for them under a plan announced Tuesday, the same day President Donald Trump planned to meet with tribal leaders during a trip to Arizona. 

Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and Interior Secretary David L. Bernhardt issued a joint statement saying $4.8 billion will be made available to "tribal governments in all states” based on tribes' population, expenses and other factors.

However, funds for Alaska Native regional and village corporations will be held back until pending litigation relating to their eligibility is resolved, they said.

“Our approach is based on the fair balancing of tribal needs,” Mnuchin said.

Meanwhile, Trump is scheduled to participate in a “Supporting Native Americans” roundtable on a trip to Phoenix, where he will also tour a face mask factory. He will speak to Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer, Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community, Republican U.S. Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona and others.

White House Senior Counsel Kellyanne Conway told reporters that among other things, the president will discuss missing and murdered Indigenous women. Tuesday is National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls.

The announcement about tribal funding comes eight days after a federal judge ordered the Treasury Department to halt distribution to Alaska Native corporations as part of a multi-tribe lawsuit opposing funds going to corporations. The judge limited disbursement of the money to federally recognized tribes while he weighs the eligibility of the corporations.

The department noted in the statement that it is "endeavoring to make payments of the remaining amounts as promptly as possible consistent with the Department’s obligation to ensure that allocations are made in a fair and appropriate manner.”

The statement outlined the following method for delivering funds:

  • Distribute 60 percent of the $8 billion to Tribes based on population data used in the distribution of the Indian Housing Block Grant, subject to a floor of $100,000. This data is based on U.S. Census figures and is already familiar to tribal governments.
  • Distribute the remaining 40 percent of the $8 billion based on the total number of persons employed by the Indian tribe and any tribally owned entity, and further data to be collected related to the amount of higher expenses faced by the tribe in the fight against COVID-19.
  • Payment to Tribes will begin today based on the population allocation, and will take place over several banking days. Amounts calculated for Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act regional and village corporations will be held back until pending litigation relating to their eligibility is resolved.
  • Payments to tribes based on employment and expenditure data will be made at a later date. Treasury will work with Tribes to confirm employment numbers and seek additional information regarding higher expenses due to the public health emergency.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said the Cherokee Nation is encouraged that the Treasury Department has a plan to distribute some of the funds.

“Tribal governments have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 public health response, suffered crippling economic effects and deserve to join states and other governments in COVID-19 recovery funds,” he said in a statement. 

Democratic U.S Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico said in a tweet that the distribution should not have taken this long. 

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“Tribes needed these funds right away, but the Trump Administration put corporations first and delayed the process,” she said. Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, is on the subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States.

Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, of Kansas added that she's glad to see the Treasury Department finally distributing relief funds to tribal governments, but "it’s inexcusable that it has taken this long."

And Democratic U.S Sen. Tom Udahll of New Mexico noted the Treasury’s announcement “is the definition of too little, too late.”

“All $8 billion of the Tribal relief fund - and not a dollar less - needs to get out the door, on the ground, and into the right hands immediately,” Udall said in a statement. And the administration must stop deploying COVID-10 resources in a way that systemically exclude Tribes and Native communities.”

Udall is the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Read his full statement here

Multiple tribes sued the Treasury Department to stop the relief money from going to for-profit Alaska Native corporations, saying federally recognized tribes have a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. while the corporations do not. U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta in Washington, D.C., last week ordered distribution of the money limited to federally recognized tribes while he considers the eligibility issue.

The deadline to distribute money under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act was April 26.

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

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

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye contributed to this report. 

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