Choctaw Nation Uses U.S. Stimulus Money for Direct Payments
(Bloomberg) -- The Choctaw Nation this week set aside more than half of $1.1 billion in federal Covid-19 relief aid to give to its members, joining at least three other Native American tribes using so-called stimulus money for direct assistance.
A series of cash relief programs combined will cost about $627 million over two years, according to a tribe spokesperson. The programs address the economic impact of the pandemic on tribal members, with specific outlays for the disabled, educational aid for those under 17, money for any member who can show hardship and in particular payments to the elderly.
“We lose our culture and our history when we lose those people because a lot of times our tribal history is not documented,” Chief Gary Batton of the southeastern Oklahoma-based Choctaw Nation said in a telephone interview. “We still have our language programs and we’re trying to teach our people and pass on our history, but when you have an original speaker lost to Covid-19, it’s devastating to our tribe.”
The money is part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) passed on March 11 by Congress, which set aside $20 billion for tribal governments.
The Osage Nation in northern Oklahoma said Aug. 4 it would give a one-time deposit of $2,000 to every member who could claim a negative economic impact from the pandemic. Cherokee Nation officials approved a spending plan for their $1.8 billion in funding that includes a $2,000 deposit to every tribal citizen. The Navajo Nation is extending an existing federally funded program with its ARP allocation.
The Choctaw programs provide elderly members and those with disabilities with $200 per month for two years, to help them with groceries and access to food. Another program will distribute $700 per year to children to assist with educational expenses, and another gives $1,000 per year for two years to every adult.
Tribal members must apply for the funds and be prepared to provide proof of negative economic impact due to the pandemic, according to the Choctaw Nation website.
The educational aid is meant in part to help students pay for wifi or access to the Internet, a need made more urgent by the prevalence of online learning, Batton said.
“We want to give them the tools that sustain them and give them the ability to choose their own path,” Batton said. “We do not want to make it where they’re dependent upon our government just to sustain themselves.”
The Choctaw Nation already has designated another $324 million of the federal money for longer term projects, such as expanding health clinics and wellness centers, bolstering higher education programs, and improving water infrastructure. The tribe hasn’t yet decided how to spend the remaining $149 million in ARP funding.
“We have to invest in the sustainability piece to make sure that we can build upon what we lost, and then hopefully go back and be creative and create other things that will help benefit our people,” Batton said. “We’re going to elevate above what we’re doing right now and we’re going to be stronger and better once this pandemic is over.”
The Osage Nation also said it’s using some of the stimulus money on infrastructure. The tribe built a meat processing plant to supplement a 10,000-acre cattle farm on its reservation and a greenhouse to produce vegetables, fruit and fish all year.
Tribal officials also are looking into creating mobile grocery stores with the federal money to bring food and supplies to those who are unable to travel.
“If there’s an outbreak of Covid in a packing plant in Chicago and it shuts everything down for the nation, that doesn’t matter,” James Weigant, Osage Covid-19 task force leader, said in an interview. “We can still provide food for our people.”
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