Interview with Stacy Bohlen and Aaron Payment

Thank you for joining us for a very special live interview with Stacy Bohlen, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, and Dr. Aaron Payment, first vice president of the National Congress of American Indians. Kevin Abourezk is our host tonight. Another special guest will be joining us tonight, a young tribal leader who was recently diagnosed with COVID-19 but is feeling well enough tonight to join us and share her story.

Posted by Indianz.Com on Wednesday, April 1, 2020
Indianz.Com: Interview with Aaron Payment, Stacy Bohlen and Myra Pickering

'We need the money right now': Tribes await billions of dollars in coronavirus relief

With the number of COVID-19 cases in Indian Country continuing to rise, the Trump administration is embarking on the most consequential tribal consultation in recent history.

Starting on Thursday, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Treasury will be asking tribes about the $8 billion coronavirus relief fund that was just approved by Congress. The goal is to get the much-needed funds out to Indian Country as soon as possible to help address the devastating cultural, social and economic impacts of the global health pandemic.

"We need the money right now," Aaron Payment, the chairperson of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said on an Indianz.Com broadcast on Wednesday evening.

"We are 100 percent relying on these dollars," Payment added, noting that it will take at least $20 million to keep his tribe's operation -- which serves thousands of citizens and employees hundreds of people throughout Michigan -- afloat during the crisis.

"Don't forget," said Payment, who also serves as vice president of the National Congress of American Indians. "We pre-paid for everything. We are the only population in the country that has a federal right to health care, education and social welfare."

Federal officials are in agreement about getting the funds out as quickly as possible. The first consultation on Thursday will be followed by another one next week, with comments from tribes due by April 13.

"A compressed timeline is necessary, so that we may distribute the funds as soon as possible to address your needs in these unprecedented and uncertain times," Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney wrote in a Dear Tribal Leader Letter on Tuesday.

Tribes and key members of Congress pushed strongly for the $8 billion fund, though it's much lower than the $20 billion initially sought. Lawmakers from both parties said they had to fight tooth and nail for the money, which is included in H.R.748, also known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act. The bill passed the U.S. Senate on March 25, before clearing the U.S. House of Representatives two days later.

"I won't bore you with all the knife-fighting that had to happen here," Sen. Martha McSally (R-Arizona), a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said on a town hall hosted by several Indian organizations last Thursday, "but I was literally presiding on the floor of the Senate the night that the deal was announced and this fund was still in jeopardy."

McSally, whose Republican party controls the chamber, said she "went to the mat" with high-level officials from the White House and from the office of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), the Republican Senate Majority Leader, to keep the $8 billion alive after attempts to reduce it -- and even remove it -- were made.

"I told them, 'We've gotta get this money for the tribes!'" McSally said on the town hall. "It has to happen!"

But the funds in the hands of the executive branch, lawmakers want to make sure the federal government lives up to its trust and treaty responsibilities. Led by Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, a bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote to President Donald Trump on Wednesday, seeking adequate consultation as the money rolls out to tribes and their citizens.

"The U.S. government has specific trust and treaty responsibilities to American Indians and Alaska Natives, responsibilities that all federal agencies share equally," the 31 members of the House and the Senate wrote in the letter. "Implementation of the CARES Act will require many federal agencies within DOI, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Treasury, the Small Business Administration, and others to work directly with Indian Country on implementation of complicated new authorities and deployment of critical funding."

The $8 billion tribal government relief fund isn't the only resource available as a result of the CARES Act. The law, which President Trump signed on Friday, infuses about $2 billion into the federal agencies that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives.

A significant amount -- more than $1.5 billion, according to the National Indian Health Board -- will go to critical health programs in Indian Country. The funding includes $1.032 billion for the Indian Health Service, at least $125 million for tribes through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a minimum of $15 million from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and at least $15 million from the Health Resources and Services Administration.

“Most tribal health facilities are already operating on a slim budget, so this funding is vital to tribes’ ability to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak safely and effectively while also caring for their communities, families and elders,” said NIHB Chairperson Victoria Kitcheyan.

“NIHB is committed to working with the administration to ensure that all funding gets to tribes and tribal organizations in a way that is fair, streamlined and expedited," said Kitcheyan, who serves on the council of the Winnebago Tribe. "Tribes need this money now.”

The consultations this Thursday and next Thursday will take place over the phone. Call-in numbers are available on the Indianz.Com COVID-19 page.


Posted by Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer on Tuesday, March 31, 2020

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