Native tribes to start getting COVID-19 relief promised in March. But why the delay?

May 5, 2020
In The News

Native tribes will start receiving billions of dollars in COVID-19 relief promised in March, the Treasury Department says.

The federal Coronavirus Relief, Aid and Economic Security, or CARES, Act passed in late March included $8 billion in coronavirus relief funds to Native American tribal governments, which have been hit especially hard by the ongoing pandemic. But until this week, there had been no word on how that money would be allocated.

The deadline for distribution was April 26, the Associated Press reported Monday, and state and local governments have already received their funding.
On Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt released a joint statement saying they agreed “on a path forward” to provide the money and that $4.8 billion of it would start being distributed to tribal governments in all states.

The $4.8 billion will be allocated based on population data, according to the treasury department, and the rest will be distributed later and based on the number of people employed by the tribe and the entities it owns, and based on the expenses it has faced amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This comes after a group of tribes filed a lawsuit Thursday over the U.S. Department of Treasury’s failure to meet the deadline to provide funds, Vox reports.
Receiving the funds has been critical for the 574 federally recognized tribes, which were already operating on limited resources from the federal government and are now proving to be especially vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic, The New York Times reports.

Rep. Deb Haaland, a Democrat from New Mexico who has pushed for the federal aid to be made available to tribes, told NPR the pandemic has been difficult for many native communities.

“You know, the tribes can use this funding however they see fit,” Haaland said, according to NPR. “But, look, what I want folks to understand is that tribes start way behind the starting line. For decades and decades, Indian country has been underfunded.”

Following the filing of the suit, the treasury department on Friday said in a status report to the court that it had “not yet arrived at a determination” on how to allocate the money, according to The New York Times.

Tuesday’s statement cited another lawsuit as the reason for the delays in getting the money to tribes, saying the litigation “introduced additional uncertainty” into the process.
“But Treasury 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 department said.

Another federal lawsuit filed by more than a dozen tribes sought to keep federal funds away from for-profit Alaskan Native Corporations, the AP reports.

Last week, a judge ruled on the side of the tribes, limiting the funds to federally recognized tribes on the basis that the corporations do not meet the definition of a “tribal government” as laid out in the CARES Act, Vox reports.

Haaland told NPR that the ruling “to a certain degree” cleared the path for the treasury department to start allocating the funds.
The department’s statement said the payments will start Tuesday and continue over the next several 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,” according to the department.

Haaland told NPR the pandemic has highlighted disparities, and not just among Native Americans tribes.

“We know that the African American rate of infection is higher than any other ethnic group,” Haaland told NPR. “It’s up to us to fix these issues so that in the future, you know, they’ll be able to start right at the starting line during the next issue and not way behind.”