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Navajo President Recounts Challenge To Get Relief Funds Flowing To Tribes

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

CARES Act money was distributed last year to keep businesses open during the pandemic, to help people pay rent, and even to help local governments stay afloat. But for the country’s indiginous tribes, who are among the most vulnerable,getting those dollars took extra work and more time. KUNM’s Khalil Ekulona recently asked Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez what it took to get their stimulus and disaster relief payments and how they’re using the money to help people on the reservation. 

JONATHAN NEZ: You know with the Cares Act fund there was not one penny allocated to the tribes, until Congress intervened and they put into the overall package $8 billion for tribal communities. That's how the legislation passed. We started to see monies going out to the states and the counties and the municipalities, but yet we had to go through the Department of Treasury, where we had to recommend a formula. That took so much time. While everybody else is using the Cares Act fund, we're over here debating on how to allocate this $8 billion to 574 tribes. I mean, there's already a formula for states. It's based on population and based on land size. That same formula could have been used. We had to take the federal government to court, and we finally got the courts to agree that that money needs to go out to the tribe. Finally got our share resources way at the end of the year. And right now we use most of that for direct relief and infrastructure development. But with the Cares Act funds that was allocated for tribal communities, we have used some of those dollars to get water to our people, to water line constructions. 30 to 40% of our Navajo people don't have running water.


And now with the American Rescue Plan Act, those allocations, what we're wanting to do here is to focus on infrastructure and that's water, electricity, broadband telecommunications here on the Navajo Nation. And we're pressing the White House, you know, I just had a meeting today letting the White House know we need some policies and regulations changed in Indian country so that community development, infrastructure development, economic development, could happen a lot quicker in Indian country, you know. I always use the example of the last administration, where they waived all the laws and regulations. I said "why can't you do that in Indian country where people are in need of infrastructure development?" And you know, that's the challenge that we have sent to the Biden/Harris administration as well as, we're very hopeful with the new Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland who is an indigenous person who grew up like many of us with no water, no electricity. So I think she will bring a different perspective.

KUNM: Let me ask you a question about the comparison between the previous Trump administration and the current Biden/Harris administration. How does it compare in the communications you have with them? Is the new administration, much more open to talking with you, taking meetings with you, really addressing your concerns?

NEZ: What's the difference? I mean night and day. Come on. We had a major disaster declaration on the desk of the previous president for some time to sign because that would give resources to the Navajo Nation in terms of mental health, also, other assistance from FEMA. But it just sat on the desk. And so once the new President was inaugurated it took just days for him to sign the emergency disaster declaration for the Navajo Nation and we got quick action from the federal government. And so we do have a seat at the table in a lot of these discussions right now.


This is part of a longer interview that originally aired on this week’s episode of our show No More Normal called “A Year In Pandemic Part 2” Catch new episodes every Sunday morning at 11 on KUNM or wherever you get your podcasts.


Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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