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U.S. to start disbursing nearly $5B to Indigenous governments to fight coronavirus

The U.S. government will begin distributing $4.8 billion in pandemic-relief funds to Native American tribal governments in all U.S. states, the Treasury and Interior departments said in a joint statement.

Some $8B in funds have been earmarked overall, but legal disputes have emerged over eligibility

A road sign seen outside Bloomfield, N.M., last month warns Navajos to stay home to curb the spread of COVID-19. (Andrew Hay/Reuters)

The U.S. government will begin distributing $4.8 billion in pandemic-relief funds to Native American tribal governments in all U.S. states, the Treasury and Interior departments said in a joint statement.

Payments would begin Tuesday to help the tribes respond to the novel coronavirus outbreak, based on population data in U.S. Census figures, the statement said, while payments based on employment and expenditure data would be made at a later date.

Amounts calculated for Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act regional and village corporations, for-profit businesses that serve tribal villages in Alaska, would be held back until pending litigation relating to their eligibility was resolved, the statement said.

The decision frees up about 60 per cent of the $8 billion in funds earmarked for tribes in the CARES Act, after delays caused by a legal dispute among the nation's Indigenous populations over who is entitled to the aid.

Some tribes in the lower 48 states had sued to say the Alaska tribal corporations were not eligible for the aid since they were not tribal governments.

Vehicles line up for COVID-19 testing outside of the Monument Valley Health Center in Utah on April 17. The county, home to a significant Indigenous population, has the second highest number of coronavirus cases per capita in the state. (Kristin Murphy/The Deseret News via AP)

The Treasury and Interior departments have decided to proceed with disbursing some of the aid while the litigation continues.

Tribes have been seriously impacted by the outbreak, with the Navajo Nation, which resides in Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, trailing only the hardest-hit states New Jersey and New York in terms of the highest infection rate, according to Bettina Ramon, with the People for the American Way think-tank.

Health disparities, higher rates of poverty and a lack of insurance make tribal groups especially vulnerable, she said, noting casinos, a big source of income in some Native American communities, were also omitted from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

New Mexico lockdown

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last week ordered a lockdown of the western city of Gallup, saying tougher measures were needed in the surrounding county, which includes part of the Navajo Nation where coronavirus deaths have been high.

All roads into Gallup, which borders the Navajo Nation, were closed and businesses in the city of 22,000 closed from 5 p.m. through 8 a.m., according to the order, which invoked New Mexico's Riot Control Act.

Gallup is the seat of McKinley County, which has seen more than 1,200 coronavirus cases and 21 deaths, one of the highest per capita COVID-19 fatality rates in the U.S.

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The Treasury Department said it would distribute the remaining 40 per cent of the $8 billion based on the total number of persons employed by the tribes and any tribally owned entity, the statement said, as well as the amount of higher expenses faced by the tribes in the fight against the virus.

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