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Shawnee tribe files lawsuit over CARES Act funding distribution

Posted at 6:44 AM, Oct 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-29 23:57:16-04

MIAMI, Okla. — "This is not about the amount of money that we got. It's that they zeroed out our population. They treated us as if we didn't exist," said Shawnee Chief Ben Barnes.

That's how the Shawnee tribe, headquartered in Miami, Okla., felt when the chief discovered his tribe would not get the full amount of coronavirus CARES Act money.

How did that happen?

In the 2 Works for You series "Native America: The Road to Recovery," we're taking a closer look at how the tribe of more than 3,000 citizens said it barely got enough money to provide a round of testing and protective equipment to fight the pandemic.

A Harvard and University of Arizona study looked at all federally recognized tribes. They found some overrepresented tribes while others were underrepresented when the U.S. Department of Treasury allotted the money. That allowed some tribes to receive millions of dollars, while others received only $100,000.

READ MORE: Harvard, University of Arizona study

The Shawnee tribe is one of the underrepresented tribes fighting to keep its citizens safe.

"The damage that this is doing to regular Americans and with no relief to our people. And us being not able to respond in a satisfactory way is, I just can't comprehend how we could find ourselves in this place because of an accounting error. It doesn't make sense to me," said Barnes.

The Shawnee tribe says it received the minimum amount a tribe could receive: $100,000.

"Our first order of protective equipment cost us over $50,000. So, between just the protective equipment alone and the salary for a public health officer has far and away exceeded the $100,000 that Treasury's given us. That's money that we have to spend. We have no choice in this," said Barnes.

In the spring, the tribes consulted with the federal government and submitted their enrolled members' population to help allocate the CARES Act funds.

The Shawnee tribe sent its certified enrollment number of 3,021. But by May 5th, the tribe's attorney said the Treasury changed course and decided to use the Indian Housing Block Grant Program as one formula for determining how much money tribes should receive, but there's a problem.

"So, in that formula, the Shawnee tribe has a population of zero. And that's because the formula is primarily based on census data. The Shawnee tribe does not have a census tract, and because of that, it doesn't participate in the Indian Housing Block Grant Program, at least not in the main part of the program. So, the data formula for the Indian Housing Block Grant formula for Shawnee is zero," explained Pilar Thomas, attorney for the Shawnee tribe.

The tribe is one of about two dozen across the United States facing this funding problem with the CARES Act money.

What's next?

According to the university study, the Shawnee tribe should have received $4.5 million. The tribe said it had no choice but to sue over the funding formula.

"In our complaint, we go through, of course, the whole history of trying to resolve this, the department's resistance to resolving it. And then finally having to sue because zero is obviously wrong. And the tribe is clearly entitled to more than $100,000 based on population," said Thomas.

"We run into this all the time where Indian people are the last class of people to be dealt with, whether it's in the distribution of our CARES money, or whenever it's dealing with our treaty rights, or we're just dealing with regular issues that our tribal governments face on a day-to-day basis," said Barnes.

A federal court in Washington, D.C., dismissed the initial case, but the tribe is appealing that decision.

Members of Oklahoma's congressional delegation sent this letter to the treasury department demanding answers.

"The fact that Indian country was left so far behind in the way that the money was distributed that they refused to take the interior's word for our citizenship. These are not club memberships. This is not the number of members a gymnasium has down the road. These are citizens, citizens of tribal governments," said Barnes.

2 Works for You reached out to the Treasury Department but have not heard back.

The federal government still has about $3.2 billion to distribute. The university study encourages the Treasury Department to use the certified enrollment data submitted by each tribe to distribute that money.

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