In a virtual town hall Friday morning on the coronavirus in Native American communities, Jonathan Nez, President of the Navajo Nation, said he could no longer restrain his frustration at “the slowness with which our federal government has worked to send dollars to Indian country. . Echoing the concerns of other indigenous leaders and health officials during the appeal, which was hosted by the House Democrats’ natural resources committee, Nez called for immediate direct payments to tribal governments, at instead of the lengthy grant application process that has hampered the Navajo and other indigenous nations from receiving help in times of urgent need.
Nez, who represents one of the hardest-hit communities in the country, also alarmed that much of the CARES Act’s $ 8 billion allocation for indigenous communities would be diverted from tribal governments to tribal governments. “For-profit corporations”. He was referring to revelations made last week by Indianz.com that Alaska Native corporations – nongovernmental entities that are among Alaska’s largest corporations – would be eligible to apply for emergency funds. Given the massive size of their land holdings, these companies could end up receiving up to half of the $ 8 billion, according to the National Indian Gaming Association.
On Thursday, a coalition of five tribes filed a lawsuit against the Treasury Department, alleging that its classification of Alaska Native societies as “tribal governments” to make payments is illegal and neglects the trusted responsibilities of the federal government. towards indigenous tribes during the COVID -19 pandemic. In all states, it is tribal governments and not corporations that “are responsible for meeting basic needs such as health care,” said Teri Gobin, chairperson of the Tulalip Tribes, who are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “We are struggling right now because we have no income to come, and it will take years to recover.”
Many lawmakers and tribal leaders who supported the CARES Act believed the $ 8 billion allocation would exclusively support tribal governments. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer took to Twitter on Thursday with Tara Sweeney, who advises the Treasury Department on disbursements to Indigenous nations in her role as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. Sweeney was previously a lobbyist for an Alaska Native company, Arctic Slope Regional, of which she remains a shareholder.
@SenSchumer Even for you, this is an ignorant and despicable attack that couldn’t be further from the truth. Perhaps you should read the law that you negotiated and passed, as Alaskan natives are entitled to receive funding from @ US Treasury. https://t.co/6hIAT5Y9qa https://t.co/Yr2OX6clhO
– Assistant Secretary Tara Sweeney (@ASIndianAffairs) April 16, 2020
On Thursday evening, 13 Indigenous organizations asked Sweeney to recuse himself from further decisions regarding funding for the CARES Act, given possible conflicts of interest. Several tribal governments have called for his resignation. In a statement, the Home Office, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said it had examined and cleared Sweeney of any potential wrongdoing, adding that any suggestion that “she has personal motives or that it attempts to embezzle US Indian funds is completely wrong.
As entities created by Congress in 1970 to deal with native land claims in Alaska, Native Alaska societies have more diverse sources of revenue than most tribal governments and could benefit from other program provisions. relief against coronaviruses. Arguing that their own aid would be jeopardized if they were to share CARES law funds with their for-profit counterparts, three Alaska Native tribal governments also joined the lawsuit against the Treasury Department.
During town hall, Nez said the cash-strapped Navajo government is still paying the massive bill for its pandemic response, while struggling to bid against state governments for test kits and personal protective equipment. . While we don’t know when help would arrive, “we keep all the receipts,” Nez said, “and we’ll wrap them up and give them to Uncle Sam, and ask for our refunds.”
As of Friday, the Navajo Nation had at least 1,042 confirmed cases of COVID-19, while the state of Alaska had just over 300.