After much debate, media scrutiny and a national lawsuit, the U.S. Treasury Department is finally distributing CARES Act coronavirus relief funds to tribal governments, but it is far from payment in full, as promised.
The money was initially held up when tribal governments rightly challenged Treasury's plan to give private sector, for-profit Alaska Native Corporations a large portion of the relief funds that were meant for tribal governments. A federal judge stopped those payments to corporations, at least for now. But as Treasury continues to fight this in court, tribes are receiving only about 60% of the $8 billion in CARES Act funding approved by Congress.
It is critical that the federal government distribute the rest. Partial funding creates too much uncertainty, and the 574 federally recognized tribes will have a difficult time making decisions for their people. Cherokee Nation’s economic and leadership footprint in northeast Oklahoma makes it in the entire region’s best interest that tribes are able to access the full allocation of federal funds as soon as possible.
We are also asking Treasury to issue more flexible guidelines in how we can expend these funds. This pandemic has impacted each tribal government in unique ways and has far reaching consequences beyond the immediate relief efforts. It is crucial that tribal governments are afforded the opportunity to use these funds in a way that best fits our needs and accelerates the recovery from this crisis. It is also incumbent upon Congress to extend the timelines for use of this funding because we all know that the repercussions of this pandemic will reverberate for years to come.
Our hope is that Congress, the Treasury and federal agencies become quicker about distributing dollars to tribes, as well as giving guidance to tribes regarding pandemic measures. Tribal governments, including Cherokee Nation, have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 public health response just as state and local governments have. We’ve suffered crippling economic effects, and we deserve to join states and other governments in the timely and fair distribution of COVID-19 recovery funds.
This delay has left tribes in limbo, even as we struggle to retain employees and provide essential services such as health care, food, housing and small business assistance to citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This fight for tribal nations to receive what Congress intended should not have been necessary. To restore trust from Indian Country, Treasury and the Department of Interior must promptly distribute the balance of CARES Act funds to tribal governments.
We will continue to speak out, fight for our citizens and seek the funding tribal governments deserve in this national disaster response.
I have asked our team at Cherokee Nation and Cherokee Nation Businesses to continue generating innovative ideas to take care of our citizens and employees. Our portion of the stimulus relief funding will help mitigate some of the financial loss of our businesses being shuttered since March. We pray that we are soon living in a post-pandemic world, and we must have the ability to rebuild what we have lost.
Chuck Hoskin Jr. is the Principle Chief of the Cherokee Nation.