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Deadline To Spend COVID-19 Relief Funds Has Tribes On Edge

Timothy J. Gonzalez
Smoke Signals

More than $200 million in direct payments were made from the U.S. Treasury Department to Oregon tribes this year. It was part of the CARES Act of 2020, to help native communities’ emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the allocated money must be spent by year’s end, which puts the tribes in a bit of a bind.

With just weeks left before the deadline, tribes face a dilemma. Should they hold onto their COVID-19 relief money and hope Congress extends the deadline, or spend it all now and risk not having funds in 2021? 

“Hopefully the date is going to be extended,” says Stephanie Elkins is acting CEO of the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians. The small tribe received $11 million from the federal CARES Act of 2020.

“We’re very conservative in our spending right now, just because we don’t know what the future’s going to hold. We’re definitely conservative in our reopening protocols and procedures, and we’ll maintain that until it’s determined that our communities are safe.”

“Conservative” is a recurring word tribes are using to describe their response to a pandemic that’s killed nearly 300,000 Americans, including over a thousand in Oregon. When $8 billion in funding was approved for tribes, it was hoped that the pandemic would be contained. But contrary to repeated assurances by President Trump, COVID-19 has not “gone away”, and cases are hitting record levels everywhere this holiday season.

Credit Nicole Liebelt
Kalea Liebelt does schoolwork with a laptop the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde provided. The computers were purchased with CARES Act funds, to allow members to take part in distance learning.

“It feels like we’re back to where we were in March,” says Chris Mercier, vice chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. They received roughly $45 million in CARES Act money. The uncertainty about future funding is complicated by the chaos in Washington, from the debate over a new stimulus bill to the transition of power.

"We don’t really know what’s going on, state and federal governments are preoccupied with other things. Especially at the federal level. We just concluded that presidential election so it’s just hard to say.”

Tribes generally lack a tax base and rely on enterprises such as casinos for revenue. Early shutdowns of those gaming facilities as well as businesses, offices, and access to reservations have created budget shortfalls. But tribes are mindful that the U.S. government has treaty obligations to them, including essential services.  Matt Johnson is communications director for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

“We are a sovereign government within the United States but we do have a treaty relationship with the United States that binds us to the federal government and really creates a special relationship there.”

Johnson’s tribe got nearly $26 million this year for personal protective equipment and financial assistance to its members.

Credit Cherity Bloom-Miller / Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians
Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians
A technician at the CTSI health clinic, Katherine Daniel, runs a test.

“I don’t know what could happen if some other major waves or spike impacted the national economy, obviously that’s going to have an effect on us as well.  But I think we’ve prepared ourselves as best we can at this point and are just trying to continue to emphasize vigilance and good health and safety practices.”

Part of those practices include scaling back services, such as dentistry and optometry. Cherity Bloom-Miller is clinical services director for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. Like other clinics, staff have worked from home and utilized protocols to limit the spread of the pandemic.

“We were very adamant in that we wanted to try and provide whatever services we could so wouldn’t overwhelm our local county healthcare partners.  You have to find ways to do this safely, and I think we’ve done a really good job of that.”

Siletz officials received about $39 million in federal CARES Act of 2020 money. Lisa Norton is the temporary project manager for the CTSI. She says the need for further funds won’t end December 30th, and is hoping Congress extends the deadline.

“I think we’re in the same boat as every other tribe, every other jurisdiction across the state.  We have a limited number of things we can spend it on, but everybody’s competing for the same resources. Whether it’s PPE or laptops or computer desks, anything we’re attempting to get there’s jurisdictions that are also attempting to get.”

U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden of Oregon say they are in touch with tribes about those concerns. Federal aid has come through in other forms, such as Abbott testing machines and grants, including $316,000 awarded to the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board which in turn helps 35 tribal clinics across a three-state region.

Chris Mercier of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde says he feels that his tribe can spend its money in time. But doesn’t think extending the deadline’s a bad idea as the pandemic isn’t going away any time soon, even with vaccines on the horizon.

“That’s becoming an additional source of stress to some of the families in our community.  I don’t know if I’d call it cabin fever or what, but just this sense of sitting around waiting for the world to return to normal, and not knowing when that’s going to be, I think that’s its own form of stress.”

Thankfully, Oregon’s tribes haven’t seen the calamitous outbreaks as seen with others, such as the Navajo. But they remain aware of the economic and personal hardships that lie ahead, as COVID-19 continues to disrupt commerce, tourism, and other aspects of their lives.

Support for this coverage comes from Underscore.news, a Portland, Oregon-based public service journalism organization.

Copyright 2020, KLCC.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.