Coronavirus aid coming to Minnesota tribal nations — they just don't know how much

'We can't adequately prepare if we don't know what we can expect'

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President Trump signs the CARES act, a $2 trillion rescue package to provide economic relief amid the coronavirus outbreak, at the Oval Office of the White House on Friday.
President Trump signs the CARES act, a $2 trillion rescue package to provide economic relief amid the coronavirus outbreak, at the Oval Office of the White House on March 27.
Jim Watson | AFP via Getty Images file

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, set aside $8 billion to help tribal nations respond to the coronavirus pandemic. But it offered little direction on how to distribute the money.

As the pandemic moves into tribal lands and as casino closures strain communities, the U.S. Treasury Department is still collecting feedback on how to disperse the money.

“While we are grateful that we are part of the process, there isn't any clear guidance that we can work from,” said Robert Larsen, who chairs the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and is president of the Lower Sioux Indian Community Council in Redwood County, Minn.

“We can't adequately prepare if we don't know what the resources are that we can expect,” Larsen said. “The other units of local government and states can estimate how much they'll receive, because it is spelled out related to their population … We don't have that.”

The law, which President Trump signed March 27, only spells out an April 27 deadline for disbursing the funds. The treasury has been holding conference calls to collect ideas from hundreds of representatives of tribal nations and is asking for written feedback on how to divvy up the money.

Larsen said the Lower Sioux Community has proposed that each nation get equal base aid, then additional aid based on population, acreage, employees, revenue loss and new expenditures.

While there are currently few COVID-19 cases among American Indians in Minnesota, tribes and their surrounding communities have been hit hard by casino closures.

“Our casino employs over 500 employees,” said Larsen, referring to Jackpot Junction in Morton, Minn. “And those are not just tribal members. We are the largest employer in Redwood County. So, all those households with those folks not being able to work has made a huge impact, I’m sure.”

Larsen said about 600 cars lined up at a food distribution event in the community on March 30. Another 722 families sought assistance at a distribution event on April 8, he said.

As the tribe awaits word on federal aid, Larsen said the Lower Sioux has declared a state of emergency and issued a shelter-in-place order. It has also set up its emergency operations center with 24-hour staffing and is working with its clinic to implement telemedicine and curbside pick-up for prescriptions.

Larsen spoke with MPR News host Tom Crann. Hear their conversation by clicking play on the audio player above.

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