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Montana’s Indian Country faced both its greatest threat and greatest opportunity of the 21st century last year.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Indian reservations across the state to take extreme measures to protect their populations from infection — from household lockdowns to highway roadblocks. But it also unleashed a flood of resources that may address longstanding problems.

The CARES Act approved last April included $8 billion for Native American tribes, including about $220 million for Montana’s eight tribal nations. That averages to $4,754 per tribal member, although only portions went out as individual economic stimulus payments. Much larger amounts went toward systemic improvements of water systems, communications networks, housing supplies and education.

An exact accounting of the spending remains months away.

The federal government has not released line-item data on tribal spending plans for 2020 COVID relief funds, although it has listed total amounts sent to tribes. Due to some controversial decisions by the U.S. Treasury Department on how to tally the size of the U.S. Indian population, those amounts went out with major discrepancies from tribe to tribe.


“No one’s been able to do systematic accounting of what happened,” said Joseph Kalt of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.

“Congress asked the Treasury Department to distribute the funds, but that department historically has little interaction with Indian Country," Kalt said. "My guess was that some poor middle-management level guy was saying 'I have to pass out $8 billion — what do I do?' Housing and Urban Development had a population number, but it turned out to be wrong in so many ways.”

A preliminary analysis showed that in Montana, the Blackfeet may have received $7.6 million less than they should have, while the Little Shell Chippewa may have got $17 million more. Kalt said the problem wasn’t that anyone on the receiving end did anything wrong, but that the federal government used faulty methods to estimate tribal size.

That’s because the initial rollout of money last May used a population figure derived from federal Indian Housing Block Grant records, which in turn were based on U.S. Census figures. In all, $4.8 billion was dispersed nationwide to tribes under that formula.

The result was that some tribes got minimum payments of $100,000 when their enrolled membership was far higher. Other tribes with active housing projects got much more per person than tribes with different housing situations.

“In failing to reflect actual counts of enrolled tribal citizens, Treasury’s decision to use racial population data from HUD’s IHBG dataset demonstrably produces arbitrary and capricious allocations of CARES Act funds across tribes,” an analysis by the Harvard Project and University of Arizona’s Native Nations Institute found. “None of the publicly available data series are reliable for the purposes to which Treasury has tried to put the HUD IHBG data. Each data series results in arbitrary and capricious allocations of the CARES Act monies.”

The initial figures used in the study came from the tribes at an early stage of the 2020 rollout, Kalt said. Later in 2020, the Treasury Department and the Department of Interior released new COVID Relief Fund statistics that differed from the universities’ numbers.

But a review by the Missoulian found that even these new figures carried forward the discrepancies from tribe to tribe.

For example, Treasury’s website shows the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation received $59.8 million, or about $6,241 per tribal member. But the Department of Interior’s website states that CSKT received $44.4 million ($4,627 per member). In their own reporting, CSKT officials put the allotment at $41 million.

The federal government has not yet published any accounting of where the money has been spent. In its public statements, CSKT said it planned to spend just over a third of that allocation on economic stimulus payments of $1,800 per tribal member (about $15.2 million). Another $7.3 million would go to improve housing and resolve homelessness problems on the reservation. And $4.4 million would go for internet upgrades.

Such things might not seem as COVID-related as, for example, the $1.4 million CSKT budgeted for personal protective equipment. That was a common expense for tribes across the nation last spring as everyone cleared the grocery store shelves of PPE when the pandemic lockdowns started.

Eric Henson, a researcher at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government and member of the Chickasaw Tribe, recalled finding a box of PPE on his doorstep in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last spring. His tribe had used its COVID relief funds to not only help its members in Mississippi, but its off-reservation members as well.

“Out of the blue, I find this box of equipment on my front porch, 1,600 miles away from the reservation,” Henson said. “Wipes, face masks — all that stuff that was really hard to get.”

But as anyone with a closet overflowing with pandemic toilet paper knows, those in-the-moment supplies have limited utility. Indian tribes needed KN95 face masks as much as everyone last spring. But they also needed things like reliable sewer systems for houses where people were trying to self-isolate, and economic support for tourism-dependent businesses in a year when everybody stayed home and explored their Netflix accounts.

“Dropping a substantial amount of money doesn’t mean those places will start displaying the socio- and economic demographics of the average American community,” said Henson, who co-authored several Indian Country policy papers with Kalt.

“This is a chance to address some of those things, but it won’t make Indian Country as prosperous as the rest of the United States on average," he added. "That doubles the needs of tribes to be really strategic and put this money to use. There’s a huge litany of needs. And this is some real, substantial money. I hope every tribe gets to do that.”

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