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Native American tribes face challenges over CARES Act spending

Posted at 11:07 PM, Jan 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-15 00:10:04-05

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — “Yeah, there’s a lot of questions about this money because there’s a lot of need out there for our citizens,” Wes Nofire, Cherokee Nation Tribal councilor explained.

For the past several months, Native American tribes have spent the $8.8 billion they received in CARES Act funding from the first stimulus package. But over the past few weeks, tribes faced questions from members about how the money is being spent. Questions started circulating on social media, and the tribes told 2 Works for You it escalated and added to the misinformation.

Ariel Jackson, a Cherokee Nation citizen, is a mother of six and sole provider for her family. Jackson said after losing her job due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she turned to her tribe for help.

“It would help make a house payment. It would help keep our electric on. It would help keep the heat in the house,” she said.

Jackson talked about a portion of federal CARES Act dollars the Cherokee Nation made available in its general assistance program. She said she didn’t know about it until it was too late.

“I had told him, ‘I want to be put on the COVID relief list,’ and he told me the program has already ended. I ask him why the public was not informed of this program. His response was ‘If you come in and applied for the assistance then you were told,’” she said.

Nofire said he’s heard from many of his constituents frustrated they didn’t know about the assistance available for individuals who qualified.

“There has been a lot of citizens from my district call, and on social media, you see about there was money that was not made public to them that they could go and get until it was basically expired and even citizens now are finding out there was money that could have helped them out in an emergency situation through COVID,” he said.

The Cherokee Nation said it communicated the information on social media and on its website, including in a video of Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. talking about assistance for elders and an additional five million dollars for tribal citizens regardless of age who were struggling to make ends meet.

“Part of the program was emergency assistance. We already had an emergency assistance program. We put federal dollars into that program so that we could help more. And we did advertise that in the summer in June and July, and it’s been successful. We’ve helped probably at this point over 4,000 Cherokee citizens with individual needs on a case by case basis,” Hoskin said.

The tribe set a deadline to receive applications for assistance because the federal government set a deadline to spend the money. However, because congress extended the deadline, the nation will still consider applications.

Cherokee Nation Chief of Staff Todd Enlow apologized for the miscommunication. He said human services would contact about 1,500 people who either called in, emailed or visited asking for assistance.

“So, what our plan is, is to retool this program with the remaining funds since we have this extension and allowing those who have not applied for it before the opportunity to seek that assistance,” said Enlow.

Applications for the Human Services Emergency Assistance Program will be available by the end of January.

By reporting how tribes are using their CARES Act funding, 2 Works for You found one of the biggest challenges for tribes is how much to spend on projects versus helping individual citizens.

Tribes said they’re under strict guidelines set by the U.S. Treasury on how to use the CARES act dollars appropriated to them.

Nofire said while the council approved the budget, he wants a more significant accounting of the money and believes more should have been spent on individuals.

“We have to approve money that gets spent but what happened was we voted on a one-page budget modification which was just giving the treasury of the Cherokee Nation the money to spend on COVID-related issues,” he said.

The chief of staff said a report on where the CARES Act dollars were spent will be available by the end of the month.

Chief Hoskin, Jr. said it was essential to use the money to keep the government and Cherokee Nation businesses operating by investing some of the money on capital projects, including a PPE manufacturing plant and food distribution facilities. Hoskin said, moving forward, they will do a better job of communicating about the assistance.

“We can always improve communication, and the fact that people right now say they didn’t know about it, that’s all I need to know to know that we need to do better and we will do better,” he said.

Something Jackson said is needed.

“I want them to bring the program back and actually give the people the chance to apply for this,” she said.

2 Works for You learned two tribal councilors spent an evening helping distribute gift cards and food to their constituents in the Stilwell area.

Several councilors said they want to see a more uniform distribution of the money, something the chief’s office said they are committed to doing.

Tribal citizens who need assistance can visit or call 918-453-5000 to ask for human services or check the Cherokee Nation's Facebook page. Applications will be available on or before Jan. 25.

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