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With some tribes getting millions and even hundreds of millions of dollars as a result of recent pandemic-related funding, the matter of direct per capita payments to tribal members and how tribes are managing them have emerged as major issues.

As indicated through various news articles, press releases, and social media posts, some tribes have already distributed millions of these dollars directly to tribal citizens. Others have not made distributions yet, and some are still deciding whether and how to do so. Meanwhile, other tribes have decided to give a portion of the monies they have received and will decide whether to give more in the future.

The decisions are complex, tribal leaders and advocates highlighted during a recent meeting of the Harvard Ash Center, which has explored the $20 billion in American Rescue Plan Act distributions to tribes from the U.S. Department of Treasury through a series of webinars in recent months. 

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“There’s a lot of authority and decision making authority that tribes have over these funds, but that also raises, in a sense, a problem for tribes,” Miriam Jorgensen, research director for the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona and for its sister program, the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, said during a Sept. 8 webinar. 

“That flexibility, the ability to exercise sovereignty and self-determination over many of these monies, particularly those monies that are coming through Treasury, means that Native nations are faced with competing priorities,” Jorgensen said. “There’s a tension between the kinds of things that one might want to spend on in the short terms versus the kinds of things one might want to spend on in the long term.”

Jorgensen said that tribes are deciding or have already made “major choices” between spending on programs for members with immediate needs and spending on longer-term programs for individuals. On top of that, tribes also have to consider collective immediate and long-term needs, beyond individual members’ needs, she noted.

“The real question here, I think, is how much does your Native nation want to put into these four buckets,” she said. “Maybe it’s as simple as allocating a percentage for each bucket. Or saying ‘Maybe we want to preserve more of this money to the future.’”

Jorgensen said that thinking about such decisions “helps drive better conversations about the sort of elephant in the room, which is the per capita distributions: How much do you want to put into that? How much of this grand opportunity do you want to be sinking into that?” 

She further made the point that it doesn’t have to be an “either/or” decision; it can be a “both/and” consideration.

“It’s really all a balance, and it’s about finding that balance,” Jorgensen added. 

Three tribal leaders, Chairman Rodney Butler of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, Chairwoman Cathy Chavers of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, and President Kevin Killer of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, highlighted some of their tribes’ situations on this front during the session.  

Chavers said her tribal leadership team is using the longer spending terms under ARP to try to make good decisions about how to spend the monies. 

“The first priority was our tribal members, helping them monetarily with direct payment,” Chavers said. “That part was finding that amount that we wanted to do, especially when we have larger tribes around us that are giving larger amounts. … That was our priority.”

Chavers said the tribe is in the process of issuing direct assistance payments to tribal citizens right now.

Killer said that tribal citizens in his community were divided over how they wanted the money spent. He said that was “totally understandable” because of the varying needs of different members in his community.

“We ultimately had those conversations,” Killer said, adding that Facebook became one of the main places tribal citizens expressed their opinions when they couldn’t gather in person because of COVID-19. 

Youth programs, elder programs, mental health programs, and per capita payments were among the areas that members supported, Killer said. 

Butler noted that his tribe has had a history involving per capita payments, which affected how it made decisions on them in terms of CARES and ARP spending.

“When we went through the financial crisis (in 2008), it hit us pretty hard at Mashantucket,” Butler said. “It forced us to do a lot of long-term planning that we hadn’t done in the past.”

The tribe started to focus less on direct distributions to members and more on nation building, he added, noting that the tribe used to have a “glorified per capita program.” 

“At some point, politics and gaming came into play, and it became purely a distribution program,” he said. “That really put us in a bind.” 

Starting in 2008, he said the tribe slowly “weaned itself” off that type of program to focus on services and a retirement program for elders and social safety nets and reserve accounts.    

Butler said the tribe is in the process of deciding how to build for today but also plan for the future in terms of pandemic funding.

Tribal advocates say one issue is that having large amounts of money left over from pandemic funds — to the extent that tribes are able to offer substantial direct payments to tribal citizens — could leave federal legislators wondering if the money is being well spent. 

“Direct relief isn’t going to get you more,” said Karen Diver, former chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa who moderated the Harvard session. “That’s a Band-Aid on the immediate problem, but it’s not the cure for our communities.”  

Added Diver: “You know how it is: One tribe does one thing wrong, and it’s front-page news, and then they paint us all with the same brush.”

A related concern is that legislators might choose to take per capita matters into account as they deliberate the complicated ongoing bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Democrats-only reconciliation plan. One worry is that less federal money could be allocated for tribal infrastructure needs if lawmakers believe tribes have generally not appropriately spent what has been given to them thus far, according to some tribal advocates.

“The infrastructure bill is moving, there’s some language in there for tribes,” Butler said. “We just have to be diligent and not sit and be happy with what we got from the ARP. It’s transformational what we received, but there’s another opportunity that’s coming forward.” 

Another concern, especially for tribal politicians, is that if they don’t give some portion of the monies to tribal members, whose enrollment and employment numbers were used by the Treasury Department to calculate portions of funding amounts, then they might be in political trouble come next election season. 

“We did do a direct payment, but we’ve done one so far,” Chavers said. “And it was a minimal amount, not what our band members really wanted, but it’s out there. … We’re keeping the door open that we will probably do more than one. If you do small ones to begin with, you can do more than one because we don’t know how long this is going to last.”