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Tribes' $20 Billion In Aid Could Be Transformative — If Feds Learn From Botched CARES Act Rollout

The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa put much of its CARES Act aid toward a new tribal health clinic in Great Falls, Montana.
Little Shell Tribal Health
Little Shell Tribal Health
The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa put much of its CARES Act aid toward a new tribal health clinic in Great Falls, Montana.

 Listen to an audio version of this story.

Many tribal leaders are used to stretching every dollar that comes their way. Last year, they were faced with a different problem: millions in badly needed aid money, and not enough time to spend it.

"The money came at us quick, and it was a flurry," said Karen Snyder, who coordinates pandemic response for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe in Wyoming. "We had to act fast in order to get it out the door."

Starting in late spring 2020, the Eastern Shoshone Tribe received $10.2 million in direct aid from the CARES Act, and about $4 million in additional relief funds from other federal programs.

Snyder, who was then vice-chair of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council, said the funding was vital in keeping the tribe afloat through the pandemic. But disbursement delays combined with a December 30 spending deadline gave the tribe just six months to put it to use.

"I just don't think that deadline was ever realistic, nor was it conducive to us doing good planning," Snyder said.

Karen Snyder coordinates pandemic response for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe.
Savannah Maher
Savannah Maher
Karen Snyder coordinates pandemic response for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe.

The tribe paid out more than $4 million in hardship assistance directly to Eastern Shoshone tribal citizens. The bulk of the funding, according to Snyder, went toward road repairs and a weatherization project for the homes of 200 Eastern Shoshone elders. The goal of that project was to make it safer for those elders to stay put, and easier for services like food assistance and medical care to reach them.

"But with that deadline coming up, we had to pre-purchase all the material and pre-pay the contractor for their labor," Snyder said. "And we had to wonder, 'Is this going to be problematic?' But that was the only way we could get it done."

The tribe's neighbor to the north in Montana, the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa, also put the money toward an ambitious infrastructure project: construction of a new tribal medical clinic. But the deadline prevented the tribe from building the facility from scratch.

"By the time we found a piece of property and started the engineering process and the architects and stuff like that, we wouldn't have had time," said Chairman Gerald Gray in November.

Instead, the tribe purchased a former animal hospital, and still had to pre-pay labor contracts to retrofit the facility. Even then, Gray said Little Shell leaders were making spending decisions under a time crunch.

"We're gonna be in a hurry," he said. "Come December 29th I'm going to be buying the $500 hammer, not the $5 one."

Then, just days before that December 30th deadline, Congress extended it through the end of 2021.

"It was very counterproductive for them to wait until the final hour. I mean, to us, out in Indian Country, who were sweating bullets," said Snyder with the Eastern Shoshone. "But, in light of the administration, it doesn't really surprise me."

The eleventh-hour deadline change was just one move under the Trump administration that frustrated tribal leaders during last year's CARES Act aid rollout. A lack of clarity regarding spending guidelines and debates over the formula used to divide the money up were also sources of stress.

Eric Henson, a researcher with Harvard's Project on American Indian Economic Development, said the Biden administration has already learned from and improved upon parts of last year's process. For one, tribes will have through the end of 2024 to spend their American Rescue Plan funds.

"To me, that's one of the most important setup differences between the CARES Act and ARPA," Henson said. "You could argue that maybe [the spending period] should be longer still, but having two and a half years instead of six months, tribes can step back and take advantage of the ability to do some planning."

Henson said the longer time frame will allow for more deliberate spending on long overdue infrastructure improvements.

"A lot of infrastructure investment could be really important here. Because that's the platform on which you can lift yourself up going forward," Henson said.

Decades of federal under-investment in tribal housing, water, educational and other forms of critical infrastructure are part of what made tribal communities so vulnerable to COVID-19 in the first place. Henson said the American Rescue Plan could play a key role in addressing that history.

But it's not entirely clear what types of infrastructure spending are allowed. The text of the American Rescue Plan only explicitly permits tribal spending on water, broadband, and sewer systems. Henson co-authored a policy brief calling for the U.S. Treasury Department to allow for broader spending.

"Infrastructure functions only with complimentary infrastructure," Henson said. "So a tribe might ask, 'Hey, we're going to invest some of these dollars in our water infrastructure, but we need to greatly enhance the electrification around it all to ensure the water and sewer works. Is that OK?'"

During last year's CARES Act rollout, Henson said those sorts of questions went largely unanswered, putting tribes in the difficult position of having to guess whether their spending was allowable, or whether federal auditors might force them to pay the money back.

"Treasury should have a team of people in place who are equipped to field an inquiry like that pretty quickly," Henson said, adding that last year, the department offered only occasional memos responding to the most common CARES Act inquiries from tribal leaders. "I'm not convinced that a memo every couple of weeks is deep enough or broad enough tailored assistance."

And tribal leaders have another big, unanswered question: How the $20 billion set aside for tribal governments will be divided up.

Last year's CARES Act funding allocation formula relied on outdated and incomplete federal data about each tribe's total enrollment, causing some tribes to be overcompensated and others to be shorted millions in aid.

The Mescalero Apache Tribe in southern New Mexico was on the losing end of that equation. President Gabe Aguilar said that was especially frustrating, since Treasury had asked tribes to self-report their citizenship numbers, but ultimately opted to use the flawed data anyway.

"We're sitting at about 5,300 tribal members, but we only got funding for 3,500," Aguilar said. "That's pretty much saying, 'We just wanted a little input, but we're going to do this anyway. You know, we already had our mind made up.'"

Ahead of a May 10th deadline to disburse the funds, the Treasury Department has not released its tribal allocation formula, further spending guidance, or details about what kind of technical support will be available to tribal leaders as they make spending decisions. However, the department has hosted consultation roundtables with tribal leaders on each of those topics. Aguilar is optimistic that the rollout will go more smoothly this time around.

"The Trump administration left tribes thinking, 'You're gonna be punished if you don't spend [the CARES Act aid] correctly, we're going to take the money back and you're not going to get more.' There was no direction, and it was like there was a target on our back," Aguilar said. "But the Biden administration has been reaching out to us and asking for our input."

Karen Snyder of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe is also optimistic. She said the tribe plans to spend its share of the funding to repair substandard tribal housing and possibly build new units, among other infrastructure projects.

"This is the biggest injection into Indian Country that's probably going to ever happen in my lifetime. So we have to take advantage," she said.

If tribal leaders are listened to, she said the funding will have a lasting and transformative impact on tribal communities.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 KUNM. To see more, visit KUNM.

Savannah Maher
Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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