ST. PAUL — After weeks of waiting for delayed federal dollars from Congress's CARES Act to help amid the coronavirus pandemic, leaders of Minnesota's Native American tribes say they wish their allocations didn't come with so many strings attached.
On a Wednesday, June 24 virtual meeting, leaders of Minnesota's 11 tribal nations said they felt left behind earlier this spring as the federal government began allocating billions in federal aid to local and state governments throughout the country. Congress in the massive bill passed in March approved $8 billion to be allocated to tribal nations, but because of apparent confusion, tribes didn't begin seeing their money until May.
Leaders on Wednesday's call said the long delay was disastrous: Regular revenue streams dried because of coronavirus-related closures, and tribes still had to make their usual bills — plus new expenses due to new COVID-19-related demands.
Shelley Buck, president of the Prairie Island Indian Community, said, "That’s something people don’t understand: For tribes, our businesses are our only source of income most times. We don't have the tax base that states or counties have."
"So when we decided to close down our businesses, we stopped all income," she continued. "We had nothing coming in, so we had nothing to pay for our normal bills — our health care, our education — none of that."
Kevin DuPuis, chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, likened their tribe's casino to "the goose that laid our golden egg." He said when they closed their casino to prevent spreading the deadly virus, they were left in the dark as to how much money would come from the feds, or when.
When the CARES Act aid did arrive — for some tribes, within the past month — leaders said they were limited by the Department of the Treasury's restrictions on how to spend the money. Aid could only be spent on COVID-related costs, and using it to make up for lost revenue wasn't allowed.
"We still had to pay all those bills we always had and couldn’t stop without any income coming in, on top of all the expenses we now have because of COVID," Buck said. "It's just been a horrible thing."
DuPuis said the underlying issue dates back further than the pandemic: Tribal governments have long been underfunded, and what funding they do receive has strict limitations. He called Native Americans "the most regulated people on the planet."
"All the restrictions that come behind the revenue — tribes again have to jump through hoop after hoop after hoop after hoop to figure out how we’re going to do this and break this down," he said.
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., who pushed for tribes' coronavirus allocations in Washington, D.C., said on Wednesday's call she had two major problems with the CARES Act: that it "does not come close" to address tribes' full financial needs based on lost revenues, and that "it took for-damn-ever for the Treasury Department to release those dollars." And when they did, she said the U.S. Treasury wasn't transparent enough about how it made allocation decisions.
Smith added that COVID-19 "is not the great equalizer. It is not affecting everyone the same." Nationwide, people of color are contracting and dying of COVID-19 at disproportionate rates.
"COVID disproportionately singles out people who are already challenged because they don't have a safe place to call home, because they live in chronic poverty, because they are Black and Brown and Indigenous and are dealing with the systemic racism," Smith said.
Samuel Strong, the secretary of the Red Lake Nation, said those disparities in poverty, education, housing and health in Indian Country have existed long before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has shined a light on them.
"We know we have the worst housing. We know that our people are inflicted with diabetes and heart disease at unprecedented levels. And we know that this has occurred because of the lack of the trust responsibility from the federal government," Strong said.
Strong and the other leaders said what would truly help would be if tribes were allotted the resources and tools promised in their treaties and CARES Act, and the flexibility to carry them out in the ways they see fit.