Tribal leaders work Capitol Hill to ensure pandemic funds not taken away
“We’re poor, we’re not stupid. We’re not going to let this happen without a fight.”
WASHINGTON — Just because the U.S. Senate failed earlier this week to pass a COVID-relief package that would have taken away hundreds of millions of dollars from tribes and Native-owned businesses, tribal leaders are not resting on their laurels.
Even as Congress booked flights to escape D.C. for a two-week Easter and Passover recess, tribal leaders made impassioned, in-person pleas to lawmakers not to persist with claw backs of major funding designated for tribes under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
“Anything that’s cut, we suffer,” Tracy “Ching” King, a council member with the Fort Belknap Indian Community, told Indigenous Wire after a busy day of working Capitol Hill on Wednesday. “We’re always struggling. These monies will help us become self-sufficient.”
He said it’s important to speak from the heart to lawmakers on behalf of his people, so that elite D.C. can experience just a glimpse of what he feels everyday.
“If someone could just come and see the suicide epidemic that we have,” King said, noting that one student on his reservation committed suicide on the same day he was being interviewed. (There were four suicides on the reservation on one day in July 2019 alone.)
“We’re suffering, and our families are suffering.”
Geno Levaldo, also a council member with Fort Belknap, is a youth probation officer and the varsity basketball coach on his reservation. When talking about the possibilities of federal cuts to tribal pandemic funds, he, too, lamented the loss of tribal youth due to the suicide epidemic his tribe faces.
“Taking money away that could help just doesn’t make sense at a time like this, Levaldo told Indigenous Wire. “These cuts would be devastating for a lot of tribes, especially rural ones, and large, land-based tribes. We’re prepared to fight, to do whatever we have to do to get these funds.”
Fort Belknap ranked 530th out of 574 federally recognized tribes in in terms of pandemic funding received per tribal citizen, according to an analysis conducted last fall by Harvard researchers. The Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Navajo Nations are right behind them in terms of per tribal citizen ARPA funding received.
While the Senate’s COVID-relief measure is stalled for now, a major worry for tribal leaders is that their message has not been taken to heart in both congressional chambers — by Democrats and Republicans alike — many of whom have said they want to treat tribes fairly in terms of pandemic-related health and infrastructure funding.
The main idea the tribal leaders are trying to get across to lawmakers is that when and if a COVID-relief funding package does move, it should not come at a cost to struggling tribes.
“We want them to know that they picked the wrong community to bear the weight of reallocation,” Fort Belknap councilman Derek Azure told Indigenous Wire.
Tribal leaders, he said, are quite cognizant that all Democrats except for one signed on to a anti-tribal bipartisan plan announced April 4, led by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
“We definitely wish Sen. Schumer would have consulted with us,” Azure said. “We could have told him to his face how badly we need this. We don’t want to be wards of the state anymore. We want to have our own future.”
While the plan in the Senate fizzled earlier this week after Republicans demanded anti-immigration language be included within it, tribes still know that many legislators are keen on getting a new COVID-relief package passed quickly, possibly soon after the congressional Easter and Passover recess.
On the Democratic side, only U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) stood with tribes on principle before a cloture vote was held on Tuesday that would have moved the proposed ARPA tribal cutbacks forward in the Senate.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has since said she will work to include tribal funds back via new legislation if any are cut in potential forthcoming COVID-relief bills.
“We don’t want to see any funds taken away at all,” Azure said. “Large land-based tribes, like ours, have faced vast inequities in the pandemic funding that was allocated to us by the Treasury Department. We don’t have the big casinos and much anything else to rely on for income.”
On Wednesday, Fort Belknap tribal leaders met with U.S. Reps. Yvette Herrell (R-NM), a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, as well as Steve Scalise (R-LA). They also sent a letter on Monday to U.S. Sens. Jon Tester (D) and Steve Daines (R), both of Montana, urging them to pay attention. On Friday, various tribal officials are scheduled to meet with White House staff.
Still, the lower chamber is crucial to focus on, they say, knowing that the upper chamber’s leadership has already tried to pursue tribal claw backs.
“We know how important it is to meet with House members in case this does move past the Senate,” Azure said. “The House would be our last line of defense.”
A contingent of Navajo leaders reportedly met with Romney and Schumer on Thursday. They have also recently met with U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) on this and other funding matters.
Some tribal leaders have gone so far as to bring copies of ARPA White House Coordinator Gene Sperling’s book, Economic Dignity, to various lawmakers’ offices — and to the Treasury Department — to directly cite Sperling’s words on the importance of equity in developing sound economic policy.
“We hold the book up in meetings and say, ‘Hey, we actually read this, and if you follow your own thoughts, they should tell you to help large, land-based, poor rural tribes,’” Azure said.
While the battle for equity is ongoing, few tribal leaders from poorer tribal nations seem surprised that they were targeted for ARPA claw backs.
“There’s a history of this happening — a history of them doing this kind of thing to some of the poorest people in the United States,” Levaldo said. “This has been happening for over a hundred years. This is not a new trick. The U.S. does this all the time.”
“We had this in mind that they were going to try to do something like this,” Azure echoed. “Whenever it comes to making cutbacks, the politicians seem to turn to our tribal funding first.”
It’s not as if the tribes haven’t been putting in the work to spend the funding, the tribal leaders noted, saying that they’ve held community meetings and created steering committees on their plans to spend a portion of ARPA funding that could be used for infrastructure projects, including a wellness center on their reservation.
They said they had been watching Congress closely for any signs that claw back attempts would happen, especially during last month’s omnibus budget legislative deliberations.
“We knew that they’d be coming for Indian money because some of it hasn’t even been rolled out by the Treasury Department yet,” Azure said.
There is a well-rooted perception among some tribal nations that Executive Branch agencies, particularly Treasury, have purposely slow-rolled the release of some pandemic funding. With Congress now looking to take back funds to pay for other initiatives, it didn’t take a genius to know that the unreleased tribal funds could be targeted.
Still, one of the primary questions some tribal leaders have heard asked within the Beltway is just how tribes were able to figure out what was happening here.
“We’re poor, we’re not stupid,” Azure said to that line of thinking. “We’re not going to let this happen without a fight.”
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