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Democrats In Congress Call For Payment Of Federal Aid To Tribal Governments

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Tribal governments across the country were promised $8 billion in coronavirus relief from the federal government. But these tribal governments have yet to see any of that money. This week, Democrats in Congress called on the Treasury and Interior Departments to distribute the funds immediately. And one of them was Congresswoman Deb Haaland from New Mexico. She joins us now. Welcome.

DEB HAALAND: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me. And thanks for caring about this important issue.

CHANG: Well, thank you for being with us. So these $8 billion were allocated by the CARES Act, which was legislation passed more than a month ago. From what you can tell, what's stopping these funds from actually reaching tribal governments?

HAALAND: So we need the Treasury Department to essentially drop what it's doing and make a formula so that the money can be distributed to tribes in a transparent, in a very fair and equal manner. Tribes across the country are suffering at some of the highest rates of this pandemic. And they need this emergency funding right now.

CHANG: And I understand that part of the holdup was a lawsuit that was filed against the Treasury Department by a group of tribes that were worried the money wouldn't get distributed fairly. But then earlier this week, a judge sided with the tribes allowing the money to be released. Does that solve the problem? Or are you saying that the Treasury Department is still not coming up with this this formula, as you put it?

HAALAND: Yes. Well, it does solve the problem to a certain degree. It's my understanding that the court order instructed the Treasury that it was able to disperse the vast majority of the funds. So the Treasury can do that. It just needs to have that transparent process. Native Americans are disproportionately impacted, like many communities of color. We're calling on the Treasury to act fast so this funding can be released because they really need to act.

CHANG: I mean, as you say, some Native American reservations have been particularly hard hit by this outbreak. The Navajo Nation, for example, I understand has one of the highest coronavirus infection rates in the country. What are you hearing in New Mexico where you are from Navajos about what their biggest needs are right now?

HAALAND: I mean, it's not unlike the rest of the country. They need PPE. They need testing. You know, the tribes can use this funding however they see fit. But, look, what I want folks to understand is that tribes start way behind the starting line. For decades and decades, Indian country has been underfunded. You know, some folks don't have running water. They don't have electricity. Broadband Internet service is at a minimum in so many communities. And so it's been very difficult to get through this for a lot of native communities. Our pueblos here in New Mexico have also found a difficult time. So we just want tribes to have what they need to fight this pandemic.

CHANG: Well, there's no question the tribes need help, and because of long-standing treaties, the federal government is obligated to help. But historically speaking, the federal government has had a poor track record on keeping promises to tribes. So do you think this time could be any different?

HAALAND: Well, what I think the pandemic has done is highlight so much of the disparity that we have across this country, not just with Indian Country but with communities of color all over the country. We know that the African American rate of infection is higher than any other ethnic group. It's up to us to fix these issues so that in the future, you know, they'll be able to start right at the starting line during the next issue and not way behind.

CHANG: Congresswoman Deb Haaland is a Democrat from New Mexico. Thank you very much for joining us today.

HAALAND: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: And we reached out to the Treasury Department asking for comment and have yet to hear back from them. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.