Tribal leaders share relief funding challenges

(Screenshot from Wednesday's National Congress of American Indians webinar)

Dalton Walker

‘We are a huge economic engine for this country, and when we have problems we need to be treated just like any other industry out there and get us help for that’

Dalton Walker

Indian Country Today

Tribes across the U.S. face varying challenges when it comes to their coronavirus relief funding, but they largely agree on one thing: The federal government has a big disconnect in its relations with their governments.

One example is the Prairie Island Indian Community, a Dakota tribe of more than 1,000 citizens in southern Minnesota, near the Wisconsin border. President Shelley Buck said the tribe doesn’t participate in the Indian Housing Block Grant program, which provided key data in the Treasury Department’s formula to disburse billions in COVID-19 relief money to tribes as part of the CARES Act. 

Buck said her tribe submitted enrollment population data to the Treasury and Interior departments that was ignored.

“Unfortunately, we are one of the tribes that was undercounted and did not receive the adequate amount of coronavirus relief money,” Buck said. “We have received significantly less relief money than other tribes with similar populations.”

Buck was one of four tribal leaders Wednesday to participate in a 75-minute National Congress of American Indians webinar series. Each leader briefly shared some of the challenges tribes face with the CARES Act.

On May 5, the federal government announced that $4.8 billion of the $8 billion set aside for tribes in March will be distributed with a minimum of $100,000 for each tribe. The formula for the funding was based primarily on the Indian Housing Block Grant program. A recent Harvard study argues that the data used to determine funding was “grossly inaccurate.”

The remaining $3.2 billion still owed to tribes could see distribution by June 5, according to Law360. The Treasury Department has requested additional information from tribal governments for the second distribution, and the deadline for electronic submissions was recently extended to noon, Friday.

Additional funds could be coming. A Democratic-led bill that includes an additional $24 billion in funding for tribal governments and tribal organizations cleared the House earlier this month but hasn’t had any movement in the Republican-led Senate.

Prairie Island is the largest employer in the area, with nearly 2,000 workers, 1,500 of whom were furloughed during the pandemic, Buck said. The tribe was forced to dip into its reserves. She said the shutdown has stripped the tribe of its self-sufficiency.

“So, when things happen to us and deplete our income, it affects the entire region,” she said. “It’s not just us. So many people get focused on tribes and tribal members, that they just put money in their pocket. They don't understand the big picture, that we are a huge economic engine for this country, and when we have problems we need to be treated just like any other industry out there and get us help for that.”

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

Mike Williams, chief of the Akiak Native Community, said the block grant program counted around 300 people for his Yup’ik village in Alaska, when the number is twice that.

“We are not happy with that final award because I think we need more to fight this thing and if we’re going to beat it or continue to protect our community,” Williams said.

Williams said the tribe has used funding for water and sewer infrastructure and helped citizens with utility payments. Funding is also going to personal protection equipment and providing hand sanitizer, gloves and disinfectant wipes to each home. The tribe has hired extra help to sanitize public buildings on a regular basis and is looking at buying laptops for students and providing internet access to all households, Williams said.

The Akiak Native Community was one of the first Alaska tribes to oppose coronavirus relief funds for tribes going to Alaska Native for-profit corporations. The money set aside for the corporations remains tied up in the courts, and it's unclear when a decision will be made.

(Related article: Some tribes distribute relief money to citizens)

Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Chairman Anthony Sampson Sr. said his tribe is using CARES Act funding to upgrade tribal government buildings to meet safety guidelines. The tribe is also looking at public health infrastructure and upgrades to water and sewer.

The tribe also has used some of the money for direct payments to citizens. Sampson encouraged other tribes to work with its legal department on potential spending because the Treasury guidelines are “very vague.”

Asked about the Trump administration and Congress’ disconnect with tribal governments and their priorities in protecting tribal nations and helping them recover economically, Sampson had some strong words directed at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its standards that affect Pyramid Lake. Fishing is a major source of revenue for the tribe.

“There’s such an imbalance of how the government is treating Native Americans in the United States,” he said. “We are wards of the United States government, they should be fighting for us on our behalf instead of us having to face all these different challenges as we go along. It’s just a matter of time before they really try to phase us out.”

(Related information: Indian Country's COVID-19 syllabus)

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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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