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Wyoming tribes receive millions in coronavirus relief money from federal government
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Wyoming tribes receive millions in coronavirus relief money from federal government

The two Wyoming tribes have said they’ve received a combined $19 million in coronavirus relief funding from the federal government to help them as they deal with financial difficulties due to the pandemic.

The money comes as the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes grapple with the economic fallout from the pandemic, and an outbreak among tribal citizens that’s led to six of the state’s 11 COVID-19 deaths.

The Eastern Shoshone Tribe said Tuesday that the federal government — as part of $8 billion set aside for the 574 federally recognized U.S. tribes as part of the CARES Act — had given it about $10.2 million to help deal with financial troubles due to the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the Northern Arapaho Tribe confirmed late last week that it had received $19 million from the same fund, saying it would use the money to pay for unanticipated costs from COVID-19 response efforts, and to support tribal employees – Indian and non-Indian – who have been unable to work due to this crisis.

“We worked hard with our Congressional allies and Governor Gordon to secure these funds, which are critical at a time when Tribal businesses remain closed and we continue to face significant costs as part of our effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and keep the Northern Arapaho people safe,” said Business Council Chairman Lee Spoonhunter in a Friday press release. “The Business Council understands the importance of using these funds strictly in the manner prescribed by Congress, and we are working diligently with our team to formulate a specific and detailed plan to utilize these dollars for their designated purposes in the most effective way.”

The Eastern Shoshone Tribe said tribal citizens and the Wind River Reservation, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, are vulnerable to the virus from an economic and health perspective.

Eastern Shoshone Business Council Vice Chairwoman Karen Snyder, while also thanking Gordon and the state’s congressional delegation, said the tribe will also use the money to offset expenses from dealing with the public health crisis, but said tribal leaders were working to decide how to best use the money.

“(W)e’re looking at ways to build out infrastructure, provide assistance for allowable expenses and maintain the current level of our per capita income so individual tribal members will not feel an immediate loss of income,” Snyder said in a Tuesday press release.

The two Wyoming tribes will also be eligible to apply for coronavirus relief state grants thanks to an amendment to a bill passed in a Wyoming legislative special session last week. And they are expected to receive more money from the $8 billion federal fund in the future.

Both tribes have aggressively responded — especially compared to other governments in Wyoming — to the pandemic, declaring states of emergencies, closing casinos and other tribal businesses, conducting a significant percent of testing for the virus in the state and implementing a stay-at-home order and curfew.

But those actions, coupled with low oil prices, have put both tribal governments in difficult financial positions.

The Wind River tribes also 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 rely mainly on revenue from oil and gas leases to pay for tribal government services and programs.

Although the Northern Arapaho’s gaming business provides some revenue to the tribal government, the Eastern Shoshone don’t see any revenue from the casino as the tribe pays off debt from a Shoshone Rose Casino and Hotel expansion several years ago.

Both tribes’ gaming enterprises, however, are major employers in the county and among tribal citizens. While the Northern Arapaho have been able to continue paying casino employees and avoid layoffs or other workforce reductions, the Eastern Shoshone had to lay off casino employees and reduce hours for other tribal employees.

Snyder has previously said the money would be helpful in the short term, but if oil prices don’t increase substantially, the tribe could face difficult financial decisions in the future.

“We remain hopeful that through these funds, our tribal government will be sustained and no further reduction of hours or layoffs will be necessary,” Snyder said in the press release. “Our primary goal is to protect our community and tribal members.”

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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.

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