Hundreds of millions of dollars in American Rescue Plan funding will pour into Michigan’s federally recognized American Indian tribes, but most are still awaiting final amounts and facing key questions about how to spend the money.
One exception is the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, which has already received $211 million and could get roughly $60 million more in a second funding round, said Tribal Chairperson Aaron Payment.
“The reason it’s so big is we are a very, very big tribe,” Payment said of the first Rescue Plan tranche of funding. The Sault Tribe has roughly 45,000 members and is the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River.
While $211 million might seem like a “large number,” Payment pointed out the tribe’s size as well as the history of “always (being) vastly underfunded” by the federal government.
The Sault Tribe plans to distribute nearly half of the funds, or about $91 million, directly to members in the form of $2,000 checks. The tribe will use another $10 million for wage adjustments, or pay raises, over the next three years, Payment said. Other planned expenditures include $25 million for a long-term substance abuse recovery center and $50 million to recover lost wages while the tribe’s casino was shut down during the pandemic.
“What’s left is about $35 million,” Payment said of the first-round funding. He expects the second round to add another $50 million to $60 million to tribal coffers. “Then we have to make decisions about what to do with the balance. Then it gets into the sausage making.”
Payment did cite “acute housing needs,” particularly for units slightly higher than affordable housing rates.
“Our goal is to maximize the use of these dollars to address some long-term needs we have been facing,” he said.
$20 billion for tribes
The federal stimulus law signed by President Biden in March includes $20 billion for Native American tribes. Unlike the CARES Act signed by former President Trump, the Rescue Plan based first-round funding allocations on the number of tribal members. The second round is based on the number of team members, or employees, within tribes.
Under the law, $1 billion of the Rescue Plan funding will be distributed equally among eligible tribal governments “and the remaining $19 billion shall be allocated in a manner determined by the Secretary of the Treasury,” according to a June 30 notice from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The first round includes $12.35 billion for tribes while the second round totals $6.65 billion.
The department held five consultations with tribes in March and April of this year “to garner input from Tribal leaders on allocation methodologies, use of funds, and administrative functions such as reporting and compliance,” federal officials said last month.
Following “principles” involving tribal input, timeliness and equity, the department “determined that it is reasonable and appropriate to allocate payments using a formula that is based on enrollment and employment data.”
However, the allocation models have caused widespread confusion within Indian Country, and the Sault Tribe appears to be an outlier, at least in Michigan, in already receiving funding and deciding how it gets spent. None of the five other tribes that MiBiz contacted for this story either knew how much they would be receiving under the Rescue Plan or wanted to speak publicly about how it would be spent.
“We have yet to receive the second allocation of the American Rescue Plan to know the total support funds allocated to the Tribe,” said Frank Cloutier, spokesperson for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan. He declined to say how much the tribe received in the first round. “We have begun to review the positive recovery from the initial CARES Act funding and are assessing priorities in regard to the essential services delivery via buildings, infrastructure and operations.”
Particularly for the second round of funding, it can be difficult for tribes to determine who fits the federal government’s definition of an employee, said Payment, who also serves as 1st vice president of the National Congress of American Indians.
Meanwhile, tribal officials across the U.S. will face difficult decisions in the coming months over how to spend the federal funding.
Tom Durkee, project manager for tribal business development at the Michigan Economic Development Corp., said he remains concerned about how both tribes and states will end up spending down the $1.9 trillion in the American Rescue Plan.
“What keeps me up (at night) is making sure all of us — tribes, states and private partners — use that money in the best way possible,” Durkee said during a recent MiBiz roundtable on the tribal economy. “I want to make sure there are synergies developed, efficiencies are developed and it’s used in the right ways that help everyone. The money that’s coming in is going to put stars in everyone’s eyes. Once that settles down, it’s about getting to work and it will have an effect.”