OKMULGEE, Okla. — An investment of more than a billion dollars came to Oklahoma tribes from the federal government recently to help them recover from the impact of COVID-19.
The tribes are on a tight deadline to spend CARES Act money as they work to curb the spread of the virus and help their citizens.
This is more than just a groundbreaking for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
"This pandemic… I did a state of emergency on March 13th and we’ve just been living day-to-day since,” said Chief David Hill, Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
It’s the first step toward providing its citizens access to affordable beef and a way for area ranchers to get their cattle processed.
"One thing the pandemic has really done has forced consumers to look at the food chain and our food supply,” said Billy Haltom, Muscogee (Creek) Nation youth agriculture program.
While many experienced a shortage of some food products at the start of the pandemic, the problem was even greater in rural Oklahoma.
”These are very remote areas. It might be a thing where you only go to the grocery store once or twice a month, you know," said Trent Kissee, Muscogee (Creek) Nation. "It’s a big 45 minute to an hour drive to Eufaula or Tulsa or Henryetta or somewhere like that and you may only get to do those supply runs once or twice a month or once a week maximum. So, really it’s about finding access points. How can we get food closer to those communities?”
That’s why the Muscogee (Creek) Nation devoted some of its $312 million in CARES Act money to literally "beef up" its food distribution network.
”At the very very core of food sovereignty, food security is making sure our people have access to safe, nutritious and relatively cheap or available food supply,” Kissee said.
Once built, the meat processing facility in Beggs will churn out USDA inspected beef and game to help provide easy access to meat for those living within the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and beyond.
But this isn’t the only way the Muscogee (Creek) Nation is spending its CARES Act funds. A third of the money is going directly to tribal members who need assistance.
”Just over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been able to make direct financial cash payments both through our income support program, our hardship support program and our virtual learning support program to over 15,000 citizens,” said Terra Branson-Thomas, secretary of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
Branson-Thomas is responsible for making sure the CARES Act money is spent correctly and quickly.
"We constantly report to leadership about where that money is going, how we’re spending it, how we’re doing and they’re constantly checking in with us," Branson-Thomas said. "I know there’s a lot of fears out there, but we are working our best and we are very aware of the deadlines that exist from the federal government in order to make sure these things go out in a timely manner.”
Tribal officials couldn’t just cut a check to its citizens needing help. They had to decide the best way to spend the money, vote on it, and then get it distributed.
The tribe said it’s constantly checking with the United States Department of the Treasury to make sure it is in compliance with the CARES Act funding guidelines, so projects like the meat-processing facility can move forward.
"I think food sovereignty is the biggest and best form of sovereignty that a tribal nation can have," Haltom said. "When you have the ability to feed and clothe your own people then I think you take sovereignty to a whole new level.”
Chief Hill said, ”This CARES Act has been able to assist a lot that you couldn’t do with regular funding. So, it’s been great.”
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