‘It’s just always a battle’: Native nations still waiting for federal COVID-19 aid

Shelly Buck
Shelley Buck, president of the Prairie Island Indian Community tribal council.
Jerry Olson for MPR News 2018

The federal government has distributed billions of dollars in coronavirus aid to individuals, businesses, states and cities in the past month.

But many tribal governments across the country are still waiting for the federal pandemic aid designated for them.  

President Trump signed the $2 trillion CARES Act coronavirus aid package into law in late March. But the Trump administration missed the deadline on Sunday to distribute the funds. In a court filing late Friday, the government said no aid would be distributed before Tuesday. That delay has left many tribal nations — including the 11 in Minnesota — waiting for funds they say are desperately needed. 

When Gov. Tim Walz put in place Minnesota’s stay-at-home rules  a month ago, sovereign tribal nations in the state were not bound by the order. 

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But they all chose the same path, implementing stay-at-home orders and shuttering tribal businesses and casinos — which, in most cases, are their primary source of revenue. 

When the Prairie Island Indian Community’s Treasure Island Resort and Casino closed in the middle of March, about 90 percent of employees were furloughed, said Tribal Council President Shelley Buck. "That was devastating. I can't even say how devastating that was. That was one of the toughest decisions I've ever had to make," said Buck.

Prairie Island is the largest employer in Goodhue County. The tribe is providing health insurance for furloughed workers, in part using aid from the state of Minnesota.  

Since the closures in March, Prairie Island has reopened a convenience store and gas station, with limited hours and restrictions on how many people can be inside the store at once. Treasure Island’s golf course is now open — like many in Minnesota — but its restaurant and pro shop remain closed, said Buck.

The Minnesota Legislature approved $1 million in emergency aid for each of the 11 tribal governments in the state.  

That aid covered some essential expenses for the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose reservation lies along Superior’s North Shore and Minnesota’s far northeastern border with Canada. The band’s casino, lodge and restaurant — its primary sources of revenue — remain closed.

"The state did come through with funding very quickly, and we were very happy that it came through so fast,” said Tribal Chair Beth Drost. “We've been able to defer some of our expenses through that, but we really do need the federal funding," 

A history of neglect 

Congress has designated about $8 billion in CARES Act funding to be distributed among the 574 federally recognized tribal nations across the country. 

But the funding was delayed by confusion over a formula for distributing the money, and legal challenges over who is eligible to receive it. Instead of funneling the money through agencies which send money to tribes on a regular basis, the money is being paid out by the Department of the Treasury, which officials said has never distributed aid directly to tribal nations before.

For tribes, it's yet another slight in a long history of federal government neglect.

Among tribal leaders in Minnesota, there’s anger, frustration — and resignation.

"It's just always a battle, and it's sad that it's always a battle," said Buck. Tribal nations were nearly left out, she said, when the massive federal coronavirus aid package was written. 

"Our people in D.C., our Minnesota [Congressional] delegation — all those people had to fight so hard just to get the $8 billion of funding for tribes,” Buck said. “We weren't even considered, and we had to fight for that. And it's just frustrating that history keeps repeating itself in that respect."

Tribal governments point out that their relationship with the federal government has been fraught from the beginning. Promised funding for healthcare and education, as required by treaties, has rarely met the needs on tribal reservations.

A woman wearing a black dress
Sen. Tina Smith
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file 2019

"It feels to me just a lack of responsiveness. A lack of making this a priority," said U.S. Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee who said she has called Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in an effort to expedite distribution of the CARES Act funding. 

"It is not right that a United States senator, not to mention the leaders of these tribal governments in Minnesota, should have to be banging on the door of the United States Treasury asking for what Congress has already decided should be allocated," Smith said.

Minnesota’s tribal governments have received some funds through federal programs — and through state programs that distribute federal funds. The White Earth Nation recently announced a $500,000 transit grant it received that was related to the CARES Act. 

On Friday, weeks after the federal Paycheck Protection Loan Program was rolled out the U.S. Small Business Administration ruled that tribal casinos are eligible. The news came long after the program’s first round of funding for the program, in which the SBA issues loans to help small businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic keep paying their employees, was depleted.

In the meantime, a government website outlining coronavirus assistance that has been distributed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from a congressional appropriation in early March, shows aid to states and territories is complete, but aid to tribes is “in progress.”

As for the CARES Act, tribal leaders are unclear what kind of formula will be used to distribute the funding, and there’s now a legal dispute over who should be eligible for the money. 

Tribal governments from across the country filed suit in federal court to challenge the Trump administration's decision to include Alaska Native corporations in the distribution of tribal aid. 

The for-profit corporations are unique to Alaska and are not tribal governments. The suit argues the CARES Act aid should be distributed only to the 574 federally recognized tribal governments that have relationships with the United States.

Sen. Smith said that that was clearly the intent of Congress.  

The Trump administration said in court filings it interpreted the law differently, and has the right to decide how to distribute the money. The case is currently before a federal judge in the District of Columbia.

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In addition, the U.S. Treasury Department has said that tribes can only use that federal aid for “necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to COVID-19,” expenses that “were not accounted for in the budget most recently approved for the Tribal government.” Tribal leaders contend when they get the federal aid, it should cover expenses they’ve incurred since the funding was approved by Congress. 

Researchers at Harvard University released a report on the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on tribal nations across the country. They calculated that, combined, tribal businesses and governments “support more than 1.1 million jobs and more than $49.5 billion in annual wages and benefits for American workers.” According to researchers, more than 900,000 of those jobs are held by employees who are not members of tribes.   

A study by the American Gaming Association found the economic impact of tribal casinos in Minnesota in 2016 was $3.7 billion, supporting 29,000 jobs.  

State support in stark contrast to federal frustrations

The frustration tribal leaders feel with the federal government in the pandemic draws a stark contrast to what they're saying about state government. Early in his administration, Gov. Walz established tribal liaisons in each of his cabinet agencies, and has had ongoing government-to-government consultation with tribal leaders.

"To know that we're at the table with the governor and the governor’s staff and all the commissioners in the state of Minnesota makes me feel proud of the state of Minnesota,” said Kevin Dupuis, chairman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. “We're at a position that we've never, ever been before, and we're all trying to work together to fight this nasty virus."

Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan has been in regular contact with tribal leaders and said she feels their frustration with federal inaction. 

A woman speaks into a microphone.
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan
Evan Frost | MPR News file 2019

The federal government has a treaty obligation to fund health care and education for tribes, but those programs have historically been underfunded. That’s contributed to health disparities and a significantly higher rate of chronic diseases among American Indians than in the general population. 

For example, American Indian adults in Minnesota are diagnosed with diabetes at about twice the rate of white adults. And American Indians’ life expectancy is about five years less than the national average.

Those disparities have made Native communities across the state especially vulnerable to the highly infectious coronavirus. The CDC has said that people with underlying health conditions like diabetes, heart disease and lung disease are at increased risk for getting severe cases of COVID-19. 

“We've heard people say that COVID-19 is somehow the great equalizer. I think that couldn't be further from the truth,” said Flanagan. “What this pandemic has done is lay bare the existing inequities and gaps in our system.”

Tribal governments are working to build up medical supplies and expand coronavirus testing as they prepare for the expected arrival of COVID-19 on the mostly isolated reservations across the state.

"While we're glad that the federal government recognized their obligation to aid tribal nations during this crisis, the eight billion dollars that was promised has not been delivered and it gets more and more dire every day,” she said.

Unlike state and local governments, tribal nations don’t control a land base on which they can levy property taxes. State and local governments across the country have challenged attempts by tribal governments to establish taxing authority.  

The recent Harvard study found that tribal governments have limited revenue streams, and have taken responsibility for funding more services, from law enforcement to social services and education.. 

“Under federal policies of self‐determination through self‐government, tribes now routinely  undertake and largely self‐fund the full array of basic governmental services that any state or local government is expected to provide,” researchers wrote. “Yet tribes lack traditional tax bases. Instead, they overwhelmingly rely for funding on the earnings of their gaming and  non‐gaming business enterprises.”

That means there's some pressure to reopen casinos as quickly as possible.  

Tribal leaders in Minnesota are discussing a unified plan for reopening their casinos. But right now, there's no timeline for that to happen, said Dupuis. 

And he's not ready to open the doors of his band’s Fond du Luth Casino in Duluth and Black Bear Casino and Resort on the reservation in Carlton. There is still not enough COVID-19 testing available on reservations to manage — or even understand the extent of — the disease’s spread.

Fond-du-luth Casino
The Fond du Luth Casino in downtown Duluth.
MPR News file 2011

While coronavirus data collection on reservations is a patchwork of tribal, federal and state efforts, tribal leaders say most cases of the disease among American Indians in Minnesota thus far have been among those living in urban areas. 

He worries that, as the state is beginning to slowly ease its stay-at-home restrictions, tribal nations will be hit by the virus they've so far mostly avoided. 

"People are going to flock from the affected areas to their cabins, their lakeside places and the rural areas. So we have to understand that it is going to reach us,” said Dupuis. 

Minnesota’s tribal nations are primarily located in more rural parts of the state, in areas that, for many urban Minnesotans, are the places they want to go to “get away” to resorts and cabins. 

“When is it going to reach us? This may be the point when it is going to reach us,” Dupuis said, “when these doors are opened and the freedom of movement is taking place. Because the shock wave has not hit us yet. But it will." 

And when it does, tribal leaders are left wondering: Will they have the resources they need to respond?

MPR News reporter Dan Gunderson is telling the stories of how people’s lives are changing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. If you’d like to share your story, email Dan at dgunderson@mpr.org.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Health officials for weeks have been increasingly raising the alarm over the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The disease is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

Government and medical leaders are urging people to wash their hands frequently and well, refrain from touching their faces, cover their coughs, disinfect surfaces and avoid large crowds, all in an effort to curb the virus’ rapid spread.

The state of Minnesota has temporarily closed schools, while administrators work to determine next steps, and is requiring a temporary closure of all in-person dining at restaurants, bars and coffee shops, as well as theaters, gyms, yoga studios and other spaces in which people congregate in close proximity.