Tribes eligible for up to $5 billion in stimulus money

 Indian tribes across the country are eligible for up to $5 billion of the $787 billion federal stimulus package signed by President Barack Obama in February.

But this money has set up a new round of recriminations between poor tribes and rich ones, and between favored agencies and marginalized ones. While pretty much everyone in Indian country agrees that the stimulus money could generate huge returns, both in terms of providing economic stimulus and alleviating misery, some claim that those who need it most will have the hardest time getting it.

The reasons for this have little to do with the new Obama administration, said Martin Waukazoo, CEO of the Native American Health Center in Oakland. Big casino tribes have the lobbying, public relations, grant writers and other resources that will allow them to have a chance in a rushed application process.

Waukazoo says in addition, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and other agencies that serve Indians have been so chronically neglected and under-funded over the years, he said, many lack the resources and know-how to go after the money.

“It’s really frustrating,” Waukazoo said. “We’ve seen an increase in our patient population due to people becoming unemployed and losing they’re healthcare benefits.”

He added: “This large amount of money is coming down, and nobody can give us an answer of how we can get some budget to offset this increased demand.”

Waukazoo’s center is funded through Indian Health Services (IHS) under the umbrella of the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Every year under the Bush administration, he said, Urban Indian Health Services would have its funding zeroed out. Senator Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and his allies in Congress would always get it back, Waukazoo said, but IHS still languished for years without new hires or upgrades—leaving the agency unable to do much about the huge flow of federal money now passing by.

Meanwhile, he said, waiting times for appointments at his clinic have grown from a week to nearly three weeks over the last year—a situation that could be directly improved if he could access stimulus money. The issue is particularly pressing in California, since it is the home of seven of the 32 Urban Indian Health Centers operating in the country.

“I don’t know of any urban program that has received or even been approached about the possibilities of accessing some of those funds,” Waukazoo said.

The stimulus plan includes over $2.5 billion allocated specifically for Indians, and nearly an equal amount that tribes or other groups representing Indians are eligible for. The plan includes some huge outlays: $510 million for Native American Housing Block Grants, $310 million to build and improve roads on Indian reservations, $225 million for correction facilities on Indian lands, and $415 million for new and existing Indian healthcare facilities.

It’s still too early to know where most of this money is going, said Barry Piatt, communications director for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

 “A lot of this is formula money, but a lot is also competitive grant money,” Piatt said. “We won’t know who’s getting the money until the competition process is over.”

Piatt went on to say that the Committee is engaged in a major outreach program, though he said that this was more focused on reaching individual tribes rather than agencies or organizations that serve them.

Dorgan also invited several representatives from groups representing Indians to come testify at a hearing in Washington, D.C., on March 13. They weighed on Obama’s budget and ways the stimulus money could best be spent. Among those testifying was Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Her group has put together an extensive website to help those who want to learn more about the stimulus money available to Indians.

The stimulus money is certainly on the radar of many California tribes—though many have been fairly tight-lipped so far about what money they’re applying for. One who did comment on their plans was Rumsey tribal chairman Marshall McKay.

“We are as interested in the water and transportation programs as we are the renewable energy initiatives, McKay said. “We tend to take a long-term view toward our business decisions and are not inclined to rush toward these programs simply because they are there now. They’ll need to make sense in the long term.  

Many members of poor tribes say they fear being left out in the cold once again. On Feb. 26, a prominent Indian blogger, Kevin Abourezk, posted a widely-read “Open Letter to Barack Obama.” In it, he said that his tribe, the Rosebud Sioux of South Dakota, suffer a 34 percent unemployment rate and 80 percent poverty rate. Toddy County, located entirely on the Rosebud Reservation, has the lowest per capita income of any county in the state.

“I think it’s fair to say my tribe hasn’t been the most successful at winning federal grants over the years, compared to other wealthy tribes, and state and local governments,” Abourezk wrote, adding: “Still, we are expected to compete for stimulus funds against those same governmental entities that have continually beat us out for federal money for decades?…Please.”

Recent history has shown that bigger gaming tribes have long been better able to access state and federal funds, according to Laura Wass, director of the Fresno office of the American Indian Movement (AIM). These tribes also have the further advantage of being federally recognized, she said. California has numerous very small tribes who have been struggling to get federal recognition for years, she said.

Wass called for a greater federal effort to make sure the money went to where it could do the most good—among the poorest tribes, especially since those are the one contributing most to the negative outcomes such as the 47 year life expectancy of American Indians, the lowest of any ethnic group in the country.

“This kind of money could really be of great benefit to programs that are suffering,” Wass said, adding that there should be “a system of checks and balances on this money to make sure this is going to serve the Indian community at large, and not the select few.”

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