The American Rescue Plan that was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden set a benchmark for Native Americans that has never been set before.
The $1.9 trillion stimulus bill directs $31 billion for Tribal Nations. It’s a record amount of funding that is significant because tribal programs – like the Indian Health Service – have historically been underfunded and it provides an opportunity to shore up what have been perpetual deficits. It’s also significant because the money gives Native American communities a chance to start to recover from the pandemic – one that has hit many tribes harder than the general population.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last summer that Native Americans in almost half of the states were more affected by the virus than their white counterparts.
With the new funding also came a promise that distribution would be easier and more equitable. The first stimulus package in March 2020 directed $8 billion to tribes, but much of it was held up due to distribution snafus and then challenges in federal court.
The support for tribes fulfills a promise by a Biden administration that pledged greater outreach and consideration for Indian Country before and after the election. It’s an attempt to loosen the grip of many decades of strained relationships with the federal government and its neglect of the treaty obligations it is required to uphold for the country’s 574 federally recognized tribes.
“The National Indian Health Board is thrilled that Tribal Nations will receive support for vaccinations, relief from terrible loses in their health systems, and that after a year of educating lawmakers about how funding works most effectively and efficiently for Tribal Nations, that knowledge is reflected in this law,” NIHB CEO Stacy A. Bohlen said in a statement.
The Department of the Interior, now headed by Secretary Deb Haaland, and officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs have begun a series of consultations with tribal leaders to discuss the most effective ways to implement the funds.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic majority leader, said during a speech on the Senate floor that the legislation “takes us a giant step closer to fulfilling our trust responsibilities to all Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians.”
In addition to funding for a wide range of Covid-19 related issues, the bill includes $20 billion for tribal governments and $6 billion for the Indian Health Service and other Native American health systems, including $20 million for Native Hawaiians.
The Bureau of Indian Education will receive $850 million for the schools that it supports, which includes the Ahfachkee School on the Big Cypress Reservation and the Miccosukee Indian School west of Miami.
The bill also included $20 million to establish an emergency Native language preservation and maintenance grant program. Many tribes are moving urgently to ensure their languages are not lost as elders die. It’s an initiative the Seminole Tribe knows well and has put into practice at its Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School on the Brighton Reservation and through its work in the Tribal Historic Preservation Office.
Other funding includes $1.2 billion for housing and $1.1 billion for primary, secondary and higher education programs.
Many in Indian Country say the new administration has been a more responsive one so far.
Lynn Malerba, the chief of the Mohegan Tribe in Connecticut, told the New York Times that President Biden and the new Congress seem to better understand the challenges in Indian Country.
She praised the new funding as the federal government recognizing “for the first time that Tribal Nations participate in the national economy and have the same responsibilities to the health and well-being of their citizens as state and local governments.” “If you consider the Native population, depending on what estimate you are using, is 3 to 5 percent of the population and we received 1.5 percent of funding, that’s significant,” Malerba said in the interview. “It’s a much greater number than the previous administration had provided to us.”