Twelve federally-recognized Michigan tribes are now set to receive a share of $4.8 billion in coronavirus relief funds from the federal government. The payments are critical to tribal governments and members, who have been hard-hit by the closure of casinos during the pandemic.
A May 5 joint statement by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced the release of $4.8 billion in Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars to Native American nations across the United States.
The eventual total of relief funds for Native American tribes is $8 billion.
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News of the funds received mixed reactions from Michigan tribal leaders.
On Facebook, Chairman Aaron Payment announced Wednesday that the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians received a little over $37 million in federal funds. The money will go toward “necessary” expenses for tribal COVID-19 medical response as well as support for sick leave, food delivery and rent costs.
“I am happy that tribes are finally able to receive Federal support,” Sault Tribe Unit 1 Director Jennifer McLeod told Bridge. “The amount won’t cover all of our expenses due to COVID-19, but I am relieved and grateful. It will be put to good use, and will ensure the safety of our team members and our communities.”
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With tribal-operated casinos closed because of the pandemic, tribal governments have been bleeding cash. Many tribal members who work for the tribal governments or casinos have been laid off.
Bay Mills Indian Community received $2.7 million. Tribal Chairman Newland criticized the distribution of funds, calling it “inequitable and problematic on a number of fronts. But, the funds are going out and there isn't much that can be done after that fact.”
Until now, tribes haven’t received any of the funding due to previous guidelines about tribal gaming and a lawsuit brought to federal court over whether the Alaska Native Corporations, which are not tribal governments but support Native American villages in Alaska, are entitled to some of the money. Starting this week, $4.8 billion will go to tribal governments, with another $3.2 billion distributed later as more data about employee numbers and coronavirus impact among the tribes emerges.
Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, consisting of 785 citizens, received $400,000, the least among all Michigan tribes. Tribal spokeswoman Alice Brunk called it “heartbreaking.” She cited the fact that the federal government used dated and inaccurate 2010 U.S. Census statistics on household self-reporting category of race.
“For tribal leaders, our number one goal is to take care of our community,” Brunk said. “We’re doing all we can to keep our people safe and to help with education, food and bills. The $400,000 could not support one month of the government building payments alone. It’s not enough money.”
Even with the $400,000, Brunk worries that Lac Vieux will still have to make difficult decisions about staff cuts.
“We have to look at things like if we are going to have to cut our services or cut our government offices and staff down more than we already have,” she said. “Some tribes did fairly well, and some of us are just going to have to be very creative.”
On the White House website, the administration of President Donald Trump outlined the steps it is taking to combat coronavirus in Native American communities, including supporting and expanding the Indian Health Service.
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