Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Is new federal funding going to be easier to spend than last year’s COVID aid? Tribes and multitudes of others will be finding out in coming months and years.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act is designed to soften and relieve pandemic impacts. The bill signed into law on March 11 allocates money for everything from cybersecurity, unemployment benefits, and homeland security to potable water.

Recipients will include health care providers, small businesses, home-owners and renters, airports, schools, and state and local governments, among others.

Of the rescue funds, about 1.5 percent, or an estimated $32 billion, will go to Indian Country.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the anniversary of the Affordable Care Act Tuesday, March 23, 2021, at the Arthur James Cancer Hospital and the Richard Solove Research Institute in Columbus, Ohio. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

The Harvard Kennedy School Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation every two weeks is holding 1-hour webinars, which are open to the public, on how tribal nations and tribal-affiliated nonprofits can navigate and make the most of the opportunities. The first two sessions were held May 26 and June 9.

Panel moderator Karen Diver, Chippewa, is senior advisor on Native American Affairs to the University of Minnesota president, former special assistant on Native American Affairs to President Barack Obama, and a past chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

She said tribes struggled to comply with funding requirements under the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES act. They faced short deadlines, unclear and changing directions from the Treasury and Interior departments, and other constraints, all while grappling with pandemic emergency response.

Now there’s four times as much money on the table. Diver said some liken it to U.S. aid to western Europe to rebuild after World War II, calling it “the Marshall plan for Indian Country, the largest influx of cash and resources that we have seen — ever — into Indian Country.”

“Indian Country has a once-in-several-generations opportunity … to get the resources that have so long been withheld from the federal government and apply those resources to build and rebuild tribal nations,” said Ford Foundation Professor (Emeritus) Joseph P. Kalt, of International Political Economy and co-director, Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development on May 26.

— Coronavirus aid: too many strings not enough relief for tribes
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Andy Werk Jr., Aaniiihnen, is president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community in Montana, home to Assiniboine (Nakoda) and Gros Ventre (Aaniiih) tribes. He said with the rescue money, “we definitely are looking generations down the road to provide better infrastructure here, and capital investments, you know, to provide good futures for our tribal members, because the pandemic has changed our lives forever.”

Expenses became eligible for coverage with rescue act funds as of March 3. The funds need to be obligated by Dec. 31, 2024.

“You have contracts, grants, agreements, MOS (memorandum of settlement), whatever instrument there is that commits those funds, obligates them,” said Jennifer Weddle, Cheyenne River Sioux, principal shareholder, co-chair American Indian Law Practice Group, Greenberg Traurig. 

But she said tribes then have more time to manage and complete projects. “... you have another two years to actually spend them (the funds). And I think that that will do a great service for looking towards larger long-term projects,” she said. She also noted expenditures over $50,000 will be given careful scrutiny.

Del Laverdure, Crow, is an attorney and former assistant secretary of Indian affairs at the Interior department. He said the Biden administration is overseeing a transition from emergency response under the CARES act to long-term solutions with the rescue act. “You don't have to just have a six-month or a one-year fix. You can look at one, three, five, five-and-a-half year plans and to utilize the funds for a variety of things,” he said.

Laverdure said he’s grateful the new law is taking a comprehensive approach. “Public health is broadly defined and includes mental and substance abuse and other disorders. And I think by giving the resources to those professionals that can provide those (services), we can help remedy some of the intergenerational trauma and the pandemic response to trauma and help lead them to healthy whole lives in Indian country and not have limited lives based on what already happened to them and having the pandemic add to that,” he said.

Burton Warrington, Menominee, is president of the private holding company Indian Ave Group, and former counselor to the assistant secretary of Indian affairs in Interior. He said something else that’s changed is the list of agencies handing out the money.

To make sense of the funding streams, he said it might help to put them in “buckets.”

One bucket is $32 billion in money set aside for federally recognized tribes and programs for tribes. A second bucket is not exclusively for Indian Country. Those funds are available nationwide, sometimes on a competitive basis as grants.

That second bucket of money, Warrington said, will come through “a lot of different federal agencies that maybe tribes don't deal with all the time: Small Business Administration, Internal Revenue Service, Federal Reserve System, Department of Commerce… National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. So.... agencies that we don't traditionally interact with.”

Some of the rescue funds will be going through more familiar channels, including $6.09 billion for the Indian Health Service, $900 million to tribes, $850 million for Indian education, financial support for urban Indian and Native Hawaiian health services, and $750 million for Native American and Native Hawaiian housing programs.

Panelists suggested tribes:

  • Consult with accountants and attorneys early in planning
  • Get legal opinions on proposed uses of money
  • Have solid findings on allowable uses of pandemic response funds
  • Create segregated bank accounts by project for easier tracking
  • Consider investing funds upon receipt and use proceeds for operations, maintenance

Coming soon: How to avoid tribes leaving $12 billion on the table.

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