President Joe Biden is expected to sign the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill into law on Friday. It includes the largest ever one-time federal investment in Indian Country, with $20 billion in direct aid to tribal governments, and another $11 billion set aside for federal Indian programs.
The aid comes as many tribal nations in the Mountain West are struggling to stay afloat.
"It's badly needed," said President Gabe Aguilar of the Mescalero Apache Tribe in Southern New Mexico.
The small community has seen nearly 900 positive COVID-19 cases and 25 deaths due to the disease. Aguilar says those numbers would be much higher if not for last year's federal aid through the CARES Act, which allowed the tribe to build a COVID-19 emergency response building and purchase isolation trailers for tribal citizens.
"So any time anybody was positive, we took them outside of their household, we provided them with food, we took care of them, and they stayed in isolation until the [Indian Health Service] cleared them to go home," Aguilar said. "So we were stopping the spread."
With COVID-19 vaccines now widely available to Mescalero Apache citizens, Aguilar said there are currently only four active cases on the reservation and one tribal citizen is hospitalized with the disease. Still, he said the economic situation is dire, with the tribe's hotels and casinos operating at only partial capacity, and hundreds of tribal citizens still laid off.
"We had 1,325 people working at our Inn of Mountain Gods [Resort & Casino] before COVID hit, and at one point we got down to 26 employees," Aguilar said. "Now we're up to about half, maybe 600 people working. So, a lot of people are suffering."
And unlike aid disbursed through the CARES Act, this round of aid money can be used to replace tribal business revenues "lost, delayed, or decreased" as a result of the pandemic.
Eric Henson, a research fellow with the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, said that change could go a long way towards helping tribal economies recover.
"Tons of tribal businesses closed down in the last year. If [tribes] had a casino, a tourism operation, maybe even oil and gas operations, they were impacted," Henson said.
He added that the bill appears to give tribes more flexibility to spend the aid on housing and much-needed critical infrastructure projects.
"Frankly if I was a tribal leader, I'd read this and I'd be willing to say, 'You know what, I'm expanding our water code. That's a cost incurred as a result of this emergency, and come argue with me if you think that's an illicit use of these funds,'" Henson said.
The bill limits eligibility for the aid money to federally recognized tribes, excluding Alaska Native Corporations, for-profit corporations that serve Indigenous communities in Alaska. The inclusion of ANCs in CARES Act funding set off a lawsuit from tribes that will be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court .
But it's still not clear what formula will be used to divvy-up the $20 billion amongst tribal governments. Last year, the U.S. Treasury Department relied on outdated and incomplete population data , rather than data provided by tribal governments, causing several tribes to be shorted millions of dollars and also setting off ongoing legal battles.
The package also includes big investments in federal Indian programs, including more than $6 billion for the Indian Health Service and urban Indian health centers, $1.2 billion for tribal housing programs, and $600 million set aside for critical infrastructure projects on tribal lands.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.