Guest column: Tribal communities need promised resources, not political games
Since we first learned of the serious threat the coronavirus poses to our communities, I have been concerned with the lack of attention the Navajo Nation has received from federal agencies responsible for COVID-19 response efforts.
Per capita, the Navajo Nation is currently the third largest COVID-19 hotspot in our nation, trailing only the states of New York and New Jersey in confirmed cases per 100,000 people.
This week, the Navajo Nation received the first round of direct funding they were promised under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law on March 27. The Navajo Nation will get over $600 million in much-needed funding.
Although many claims have been made about the arrival of these funds, let me be clear: in the first draft of the CARES Act, the president and the Senate proposed $0 in Coronavirus Relief Fund monies for tribes.
My House colleagues and I proposed $20 billion. After much disagreement, an $8 billion compromise was struck.
This $8 billion was allocated for tribal governments to use for expenses incurred due to COVID-19. However, much of the delay related to disbursement of these funds to tribes was because officials within the Department of the Interior were considering allocating a portion of this $8 billion to Alaska Natives Corporations, a group of for-profit entities that generate billions of dollars in revenue each year and answer to individual shareholders. These entities do not support tribal governments or provide governmental functions and services.
I was outraged, and immediately joined the voices of tribes across our nation and my colleagues on Capitol Hill in demanding these funds reach tribal governments, not corporations. On April 27, a U.S. District Judge in Washington, D.C. announced the Treasury Department could begin distributing money to federally recognized tribes, and not to these corporations. However, the question of whether these corporations are eligible for any of the funding is still being debated.
The United States has treaty and trust obligations to care for the health and welfare of federally recognized tribes, not corporations. The Treasury must act swiftly to resolve outstanding legal issues surrounding the Alaska Natives Corporations and disburse the remaining 40 percent of dedicated funding to tribal governments.
Currently, there is no public timeline from the Treasury detailing when these funds will be released, and coronavirus cases on the Navajo Nation continue to rise.
Throughout this time, I have sent letter after letter to Vice President Mike Pence, head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, pleading the administration pay due attention to the Navajo Nation and the many tribal communities suffering without the monies they were promised to deal with this unprecedented public health emergency.
I have worked to ensure that tribal communities can access quality, high-speed broadband to expand telehealth programs and improve distance learning and teleworking. I’ve collaborated with the Small Business Administration to ensure Paycheck Protection Program loans were expanded to cover tribal gaming enterprises with under 500 employees, and called on the Indian Health Service to supply better, streamlined guidance and resources.
In addition to the $8 billion we secured for tribal governments, I fought for the CARES Act to include over $1 billion for the Indian Health Service and tribal health systems, and hundreds of millions in funding for BIE schools, tribal housing and food programs, and the Special Diabetes Program for Indians. Across four coronavirus stimulus packages, I’ve helped secure billions of dollars for Indian Country.
Lives are at stake here. Tribal communities do not need political games or spin, they need the resources they were promised so each sovereign nation can care for their people. I will not stop fighting for Indian Country.
Tom O’Halleran is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives representing Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. A Democrat, he lives in the Village of Oak Creek.