Show Me The Money

Gaming With Indian Lives

Gwynne Ann Unruh
5 min read
pulled over in monument valley
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The CARES Act wheel of fortune is still spinning for New Mexico’s 19 indigenous pueblos. Tribal communities that range from several thousand members to just 300 are looking at possible extinction if they do not receive financial support from the U.S. government to help them through the pandemic. When the wheel will stop-indicating the fate of an aggressively advocated for $8 billion COVID-19 relief fund for Native Americans is anyone’s guess. At least 40 percent of the relief funds may be tied up in litigation for a very long time. In basic terms, Native tribes haven’t received the same stimulus money the majority of Americans have received so far. In fact, they haven’t received a penny.

After a hard-fought battle to secure the $8 billion in funds for the Native tribes, a new struggle emerged over how the federal government should distribute the money. At question was whether Alaskan Native Corporations (ANCs), which are for-profits incorporated under state law, were entitled to be treated in the same manner as tribal nations. Distribution of relief funds to ANCs would strip hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars from federally-recognized Tribal governments.

According to the Associated Press, at least 18 federally recognized tribes, including the Navajo Nation (Arizona, New Mexico, Utah) and the Pueblo of Picuris (New Mexico), stood together to oppose the distribution actions of the Department of the Treasury. They sued the Trump administration over the distribution formula that was proposed to utilize to distribute the CARES Act funds.

U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta issued a decision on April 27, 2020 temporarily blocking the Treasury from distributing any of the $8 billion to Native corporations in Alaska. The judge held that tribal governments would suffer "irreparable harm" if payments go out to the for-profit entities. Metha has directed the Treasury to disburse the entire $8 billion in emergency relief to the plaintiffs and other federally recognized tribes.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said $4.8 billion, or 60 percent of the total allotted money should begin hitting tribal bank accounts this week. The distribution of the money is based on population size, with the largest tribes receiving the biggest shares of money. Tribes had expected to receive the full $8 billion in funds by April 24, but now there is no timetable for the remaining money. Democratic New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, called the Treasury’s announcement "the definition of ‘too little, too late.’ “It comes weeks after the deadline and billions of dollars short," said Udall.

In a state that is home to 19 Pueblos, three Apache tribes, and a portion of the Navajo Nation, Native Americans account for nearly 50 percent of COVID-19 cases in New Mexico. Many of the tribes whose existence pre-dates the U.S. Constitution are endangered communities and losing one person to the virus takes a toll on the entire community. With limited resources available, Tribal leaders have improvised ways to stop the virus’ spread. Some have imposed strict curfews, requiring people to stay home or face arrest. Other Tribes have set up physical road blocks to keep outsiders from potentially infecting people on the reservation. On the Navajo Nation, the situation is so dire that Doctors Without Borders, the international non-profit health care organization was deployed to help this week.

The circumstances in which Native communities exist already predispose them to risks. A United States Commission on Civil Rights study in 2018 determined Native Americans continue to rank near the bottom of all Americans in health, education, and employment outcomes. Overcrowded housing and inadequate health care within Native American communities make them one of the most at-risk groups as the coronavirus pandemic devastates the United States.

Many households in New Mexico’s tribal communities include multiple generations living under the same roof. Family members are crowded into a household to make ends meet and pay bills. The overcrowded home situation is at least 16 times the national average, with seven or more family members living under the same roof, making social distancing difficult if not impossible.

Native communities are also dealing with the economic impact of the crisis. Lockdowns have forced casinos-that provide valuable jobs and revenue where there otherwise are none to close. Tribes are literally fighting for immediate dollars to save lives and are in dire need of support for the critical medical and community needs of their people.

More than 250 tribes have some assets held in trust by the federal government. Under those trust agreements, the U.S. government must make sure tribes receive "just compensation" for the use of their land or resources. Much of the monies owed to Native tribes for the use of their land has been tied up in litigation for decades. A lifeline was allotted the Native tribes when the CARES Act was signed. As Udall stated, “the money could come a little too late.” A long court battle could result in the loss of an entire Pueblo.
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