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Wind River tribes could receive coronavirus funding from state to help ease economic troubles
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Wind River tribes could receive coronavirus funding from state to help ease economic troubles

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COVID-19 Clinic

Radiologic technologist Ann Kuba grabs bags of nasal swab kits to run to the lab on April 24 at the drive-up clinic in Arapahoe. New legislation could allow Wyoming's two tribes, hit especially hard by the coronavirus, to apply for additional relief through the state.

CHEYENNE — Businesses and nonprofit organizations on the Wind River Reservation will likely be eligible for additional federal coronavirus relief after the Wyoming Legislature wrote the tribes into an emergency spending package Friday.

Sponsored as amendments to a larger emergency relief package by Lander Republican Lloyd Larsen in the House and Cheyenne Republican Affie Ellis in the Senate, the legislation would allow the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes the ability to apply for hundreds of millions of dollars in grant funding at the center of a $1.25 billion infusion of emergency funding under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.

Previously, both tribes — which have already received a combined $29 million in federal funding as part of a larger $8 billion CARES Act fund set aside for tribal governments — would have been locked out of accessing those funds, as most businesses on the reservation are owned by the tribes themselves.

“There have been efforts at the federal level to provide funding to tribes specifically. Historically … any appropriation to Indian County tends to be really inadequate,” said Ellis, a member of the Navajo Nation. “So this is really kind of an opportunity for us to see if there are partnerships that would make sense that would benefit both the reservation and surrounding communities.”

The amendment itself does not include a dollar amount and would merely allow the tribes to apply for emergency funding from the State Loan and Investment Board under a new set of state guidelines outlining what purposes the CARES Act funding can be used for.

“The mechanism isn’t there,” Larsen said in introducing the amendment. “All this does is provide a mechanism in the event they want to make a proposal or if the governor wanted to entertain a proposal, that they could do so.”

The Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes — like other tribes in the U.S. — face unique economic challenges in dealing with the pandemic. They don’t have a tax base to count on like local and state governments and, in the case of the Wyoming tribes, rely mainly on revenue from oil and gas leases to pay for tribal government services and programs.

In addition, many tribal businesses on the reservation, like each tribe’s gaming operations, have been shuttered amid the pandemic.

“Under federal policies of self-determination through self-government, tribes now routinely undertake and largely self-fund the full array of basic governmental services that any state or local government is expected to provide. Yet, tribes lack traditional tax bases. Instead, they overwhelmingly rely for funding on the earnings of their gaming and non-gaming business enterprises,” the authors of a Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development letter to the federal government wrote in a press release in April announcing the letter and accompanying recommendations on distributing funding to Indian Country. “In the wake of these closures, tribes are facing massive layoffs, their workers’ losing insurance coverage, dipping into hard-earned assets and building up debt.”

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At least one Wyoming tribe has said the money it has received from the federal government — while helpful and needed — won’t be enough to sustain tribal services, employment levels and per capita payments if energy prices don’t increase.

“I think it’s gonna buy us a little bit of time. And then let’s see what happens in the oil and gas industry,” Eastern Shoshone Business Council Vice-Chair Karen Snyder said late last week. “It buys us a little bit of time to try to sustain our tribal government and to keep our doors open for the most part.”

While the Northern Arapaho’s gaming enterprise provides some revenue to the tribe, the Eastern Shoshone Business Council doesn’t see any direct payments from its gambling business to government accounts. Its casino operations are self-sustaining, but any extra revenue goes to paying off millions of dollars in loan debt from an expansion of the Shoshone Rose Casino & Hotel several years ago.

The tribes’ casinos also act as major job providers, especially for tribal citizens on a reservation with high unemployment rates, employing hundreds combined. It was unclear if tribes were initially eligible to apply for help from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, but the federal government has now said they are eligible.

The Northern Arapaho Tribe was at least originally able to avoid layoffs, other impacts to tribal employees and major reductions in services. The Eastern Shoshone Tribe, however, has had to lay casino employees off and cut hours for other tribal employees.

While some lawmakers — like House Majority Whip Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance — questioned using state funding to bolster a sovereign nation, other members of leadership — including House Majority Floor Leader Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, and House Minority Floor Leader Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie — noted that enrolled members of the tribes are still citizens of Wyoming and that tribal governments are often close collaborators in a number of programs on the Wind River Reservation.

“We are very much partners in these,” Connolly said.

The tribes and Fremont County have been the hardest hit by the pandemic. As of Friday evening, 197 of Wyoming’s 541 confirmed cases were from Fremont County. Thirty-two percent of the state’s cases were among the state’s Native Americans, a population especially vulnerable to the virus’ most serious side effects.

The Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho have also had the most aggressive response of any government in the state to minimize the spread, instituting a stay-at-home order and curfew on the reservation, in addition to business and casino closings.

“It’s very important. We’ve included tribes in other programs,” said Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander. “I think it’s really a great show of good faith. You need to understand how hard the people up there are working to make sure that this disaster doesn’t unfold in the worst way. And they’re doing a great job, and we can support them by including them in this bill.”

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Chris Aadland covers the Wind River Reservation and tribal affairs for the Star-Tribune as a Report for America corps member. A Minnesota native, he spent the last two years reporting for the Wisconsin State Journal before moving to Wyoming in June 2019.

Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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