Native American tribes across the U.S. for weeks have been shutting down casinos, hotels and tourist destinations, and shoring up services amid worries about the spread of the coronavirus.
( AP Photo
Tanzina Vega: It's The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega. When the $2.2 trillion federal CARES Act was signed into law at the end of March, it allocated roughly $8 billion to tribal governments. Months later, tribes are still waiting for some of that money to be distributed. Multiple tribes are suing the federal government over how the money has been allocated. According to the tribes involved in those suits, the Treasury Department underfunded them by millions of dollars, but while the court battles over funding are playing out, indigenous communities in the United States are still being hit disproportionately hard by the coronavirus outbreak.
Here with me now is Eric Henson, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, and a research affiliate with the Harvard Project on American Indian economic development. Eric, welcome to the Takeaway.
Eric Henson: Thanks for having me on the show.
Tanzina Vega: How had the Treasury Department allocated the money to tribal governments so far?
Eric: It has basically taken place in two rounds, there is a batch of dollars that went out. Initially, it was based on a population count for the different tribes. Then there was a second-round that was based on the number of employees the tribes have, and also a measure of expenditures that tribes undertake each year. Those two batches, the first batch had about 60% of the money, and the second batch had about 40% of the money. Then there's some dollars that have been set aside pending one of these lawsuits dealing with whether the Alaska Native corporations should be eligible for receive of some of the funding. That's the state of play, as we speak today.
Tanzina Vega: You mentioned two of the buckets of funding, if you will, do we have a sense of how much the initial $8 billion has still not been doled out by the federal government?
Eric: My understanding and kind of back of the envelope estimate is it's somewhere between 500 million and 600 million. That's the set aside for the Alaska Native Corporation litigation, that seems to be set the play out over the coming weeks and months. There was a temporary restraining order that prohibited the Treasury from issuing money to those Alaska Native corporations but the judge allowed Treasury to hold some aside pending a full litigation of that question.
Tanzina Vega: Let's take a step back just a minute here, Eric, because I think a lot of our listeners may not be as familiar with what's the details here when it comes to the lawsuits, because funding has been delayed because of lawsuits that tribal governments filed asking to stop some of this funding from going to the Alaska Native corporations. Who are Alaska Native corporations, and why did the tribes want to block that funding?
Eric: Sure. The history of the Alaska Native corporations is tied to some legislation that the federal government put in place in the early 1970s. Much of the land in Alaska was subject to land claims by Native people up there at the time,but oil had been discovered on the North Slope, and there were questions about building a pipeline and having that oil production come online. So, Congress put in place this Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Part of that was establishing these different corporations of these dozen at the time. Then there's a 13th one that came about later.
Different people up in Alaska are shareholders of these corporations, so when the initial CARES Act legislation happened, and it mentioned that the Alaska Native corporations might be recipients of some of that money, a number of the tribes, there currently 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States, a number of those tribes initiated these lawsuits to stop any of the money going to the Alaska Native corporations.
Their argument is basically looking with a 574 federally recognized tribes, there's something like 229 of them that are Alaskan anyway. These corporations are corporate entities that are not fundamentally tribal governments. There's any dispute about whether the ANCs, they call them, these Alaska Native corporations will receive those hundreds of millions of dollars or not.
There's some other lawsuits about individual tribes, claiming that their population was undercounted one way or another. Those have not actually held up the disbursment of those two big buckets of money we talked about. There was a hearing late in the game to halt that second bucket of money being distributed with the judge who's presiding over these issues, ordered Treasury to go ahead and disperse the funds.
My understanding is those tribes might be able to pursue their individual claims, though, but it's smaller dollars on any individual tribal basis than the billions of dollars that went out in the first bucket tied to population and then the billions of dollars that went out in the second bucket.
Tanzina Vega: Eric, one of the things, we're seemingly talking less than less, at least at the national level about Coronavirus. We are not, at least I'm not hearing as much about how this is affecting the different communities, particularly native communities. Without this funding and given the fact that this community has been so hard hit and continues to be hard hit by Coronavirus, what do you see as the long term effects here?
Eric: Well, the initial shock to the tribal economies was quite severe. It was kind of on both ends. Tribes are heavily dependent on tribal enterprises for effectively being their governmental tax base. Tribes have never had great luck, really living and collecting taxes. They have been engaged in all these enterprises, some of the tourist enterprises and gaming enterprises and my own tribe owns a chocolate factory and various things.
Any profits from those enterprises are more or less the tax base for tribal governments. When the Coronavirus first reared its ugly head, virtually all those businesses took a hit. If you were in the tourism industry or gaming industry, all those got shut down. Tribal revenues were immediately impacted and only now they're starting to come back, in diminished form.
At the same time, you had these massive increases in social service demands and healthcare demands, you need to start thinking about expanding your food pantry and potentially hiring cleaning crews and buying all sorts of [unintelligible 00:06:57]. You had this tremendous revenue fall tied to increase demands, and the tribes really have this shock to their economies as well as their health care systems all at the same time.
Tanzina Vega: Where do you see beyond economics, the cultural loss that the pandemic could represent for certain tribal nations?
Eric: Oh, sure. That's a big part of what I think a lot of tribes have been worried about is, take one example, take language retention. Lots of indigenous communities around the world have had tremendous trouble maintaining their native tongues. It's often the case that the oldest among the living population has the best language retention, and Coronavirus, in particular when it first came about it was disproportionately affecting the oldest among every town, every community, every population. I think, just through that one little vignette of like language retention, you could see this tremendous scare. Many of your best native speakers are in dire danger from this.
Tanzina Vega: Eric Henson is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and a research affiliate with the Harvard Project on American Indian economic development. Thank you, Eric.
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