Wind River Tribes Await CARES Act Aid

Apr 21, 2020


Credit Savannah Maher

The CARES Act, which sets aside nearly $150 billion for state and local governments, also includes $8 billion to keep tribes afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tribal governments could start to see that aid beginning this week.

The federal government has not released the funding formula it will use to disburse the money among more than 600 applicants. But the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone Business Councils have weighed-in on how they would like to see it divided up.

"Our advocacy was that all federally recognized tribes receive [an equal] lump sum, and that the additional funding that would go out would be based on [...] the population of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, the number of employees that we have, and then our large land base," said Karen Snyder, Co-Chairwoman of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council.

The Northern Arapaho Tribe proposed a nearly identical formula to the U.S. Treasury Department during a public comment period. Co-Chairman Stephen Fasthorse of the Northern Arapaho Business Council said he also hopes the feds take into account each tribe's unique economic situation.

"There's some small tribes that are very well off because of their location. Then you have some reservations that are very rural, and the economics there are almost non-existent so the need is a lot higher," Fasthorse said.

The two tribes share about 1.7 million acres of federal trust land on the Wind River Reservation, which is among the largest reservations by land base in the United States.

It's not clear whether each tribe will be allowed to claim the reservation's entire land base in their funding application. However, Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney has urged U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to deliver the tribes' aid separately.

"Historically, when federal funding has been distributed throughout Indian Country, the Wind River Reservation has received a lump sum to be allocated among the two tribes -- without taking into account the differences or specific needs of each tribe," Cheney wrote in a letter dated April 11. "I respectfully request that the Department of the Treasury allocate COVID-19 pandemic relief funding separately to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes."

Leaders from both tribes expressed appreciation for the support from Cheney and Gov. Mark Gordon, who wrote to the Treasury Department with the same request.

"She really did step up and advocated that the funding come directly to the tribes, that [the] Treasury recognize the Wind River Indian Reservation, that we're two sovereign nations," Snyder said, adding that lumping the two governments together could result in underfunding for both tribes.

The Wind River Tribes have not individually weighed in on the debate over whether Alaska Native Corporations should be entitled to a slice of the tribal stabilization fund. However, they are each members of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leader Council, which signed a letter last week opposing Alaska Native Corporations' inclusion.

With all three of the Northern Arapaho tribe's gaming enterprises shut down, and oil and gas markets crashing to historic lows, Fasthorse said the CARES Act funding will replace some lost revenue and help the tribe continue to offer social services for its members.

"It's a double whammy, because those are our two main sources of revenue. That's going to make it very difficult for both tribes to continue moving forward," Fasthorse said.

The Eastern Shoshone Tribe is facing similar challenges, and has already been forced to cut many tribal employees' hours down to 32 hours a week.

"That means interruption of our services and of our tribal business," Snyder said. "So [the funding] is to make our tribe whole again, as far as operations."

She said the Eastern Shoshone Business Council will also look at providing some relief to tribal members whose monthly per-capita checks, which are derived from the tribe's oil and gas revenue, will take a hit.

The tribes should start to get some answers this week on exactly how much aid they'll receive from the $8 billion tribal stabilization fund. The deadline for the U.S. Treasury Department to disburse that money is this Sunday, April 26.

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