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Government report outlines web of problems impeding tribal access to federal funds

Savannah Maher Dec 21, 2022
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The GAO's report shows how the rollout of tribal relief funding has been rocky. Getty Images

Government report outlines web of problems impeding tribal access to federal funds

Savannah Maher Dec 21, 2022
Heard on:
The GAO's report shows how the rollout of tribal relief funding has been rocky. Getty Images
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Tribal economies were hit especially hard by the pandemic, and tribal governments received an unprecedented amount of federal relief funding to help them get back on their feet. 

But the rollout of all that money didn’t always go smoothly, as a new report from the Government Accountability Office details. 

The problems started early, with a delay in distributing CARES Act money.  

“Our funding didn’t come down as quickly as to other states and municipalities,” said Wayne Ducheneaux with the Native Governance Center. He added that tribes needed that relief funding fast, but it didn’t arrive until June of 2020, seven weeks after the government’s own deadline. 

“So by the time the funding got to Indian Country, a lot of the resources that were needed to be brought in with CARES Act money were already going to other places.”

Those resources included things like personal protective equipment and building materials for carrying out infrastructure projects.

Then came confusion around spending rules and deadlines, said Liz Malerba with United South and Eastern Tribes. 

“Tribal nations are asking the federal agency whether a project or a funding purpose is allowed,” said Malerba. Like, can we use this money to build housing? Or distribute it for food or rental assistance? But instead of giving those questions a thumbs up or down, “they’re citing back to their own guidance that is causing the confusion in the first place.”

Malerba said tribes second guessed badly needed spending, fearing they’d have to pay the money back. 

Anna Maria Ortiz, who wrote the GAO report, heard similar stories. 

“Tribes couldn’t do the kind of planning they needed to really invest the funds where they needed to go,” she said.

She added the agencies that did the best job distributing funds were those like the Department of the Interior, which has existing relationships with tribal governments. 

Blunders came from those that had been neglecting their treaty and trust responsibilities, and got caught flat-footed. 

“By increasing the capacity of federal agencies to work with tribes, they’re going to be in a better place to design and administer programs that serve tribes,” Ortiz said.

Since the start of the pandemic, some federal agencies including Treasury have launched tribal affairs offices. Eric Henson with Harvard’s Project on American Indian Economic Development said that’s an important legacy. 

“It might take 500 years of good investment and effort to overcome a couple hundred years of disinvestment and malfeasance,” he said, adding that the first step is engaging with tribes on an ongoing basis, before there’s a crisis. 

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