Treasury to begin distributing virus relief money to tribes

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FILE - In this Sept. 25, 2014, file photo, students walk between buildings at the Little Singer Community School in Birdsprings, Ariz., on the Navajo Nation. The tribe is among plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit that seeks to keep the U.S. Treasury Department from disbursing coronavirus relief funding for tribes to Alaska Native corporations. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The U.S. Treasury Department said Tuesday that it will begin doling out billions to help tribes respond and recover from the coronavirus more than a week after a congressional deadline and after being sued over who is eligible for the money.

The $2.2 trillion federal rescue package approved in late March set aside $8 billion for tribal governments. The money was supposed to be distributed by April 26, but the Treasury Department said it was grappling with how to do it.

Tribes sued the agency to keep the money from going to Alaska Native corporations, which own most Native lands in the state under a 1971 settlement but are not tribal governments. U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta in Washington, D.C., gave the tribes a victory last week by limiting the funding to the country's 574 federally recognized tribes while he settles the question of eligibility.

The Treasury Department said it will withhold an undisclosed amount calculated for the corporations until the case is resolved.

President Donald Trump, who met with tribal leaders Tuesday during a trip to Arizona, called the funding the “single largest investment in Indian Country in our history."

Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis thanked Trump but said the money is “woefully inadequate to meet our overall needs.”

Tribes had sought $20 billion to stay afloat, respond to the pandemic and recover after having to shut down casinos, tourism operations and other businesses that serve as their main moneymakers.

Payments totaling $4.8 billion will go to tribes over the next several days, based on population. Further payments based on the number of tribal employees and money that tribes have spent responding to the coronavirus will go out later, the Treasury Department said.