by the Akiak Native Community
This is a letter dated March 31, 2021 sent to Secretary Janet Yellen, United States Department of the Treasury from the Akiak Native Community.
I write on behalf of the Akiak Native Community, a federally-recognized Tribe located on the Kuskokwim river in remote Western Alaska. Our village is only accessible by boat or plane most of the year, but COVID-19 has still found its way here and exacerbated the many challenges faced by our community residents.
We thank you for providing the opportunity to consult on the Treasury’s allocation of the additional Coronavirus Relief Funds provided in the American Rescue Plan Act (“ARP”). Given the unique circumstances of our Tribal communities, we ask Treasury to distribute at least a quarter of the Funds to Alaska’s 229 Tribes.
The ARP set aside $20 billion to support Tribes in their effort to reduce the rate of transmission, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19. In addition to health-related goals, the relief package is designated to improve access to clean water and electricity, to facilitate access to reliable internet, and to improve the economic condition in Tribal communities. These service deficiencies are perhaps most extreme in Alaska, where many of our remote communities still rely on the “honey bucket” and have limited access to clean water, and broadband is virtually non-existent. These goals align directly with the needs of Alaska Tribes.
First, the previous CARES Act relief package left Alaska’s Tribes in need when it did not account for the unique nature of our Tribal governments and the communities we serve. In addition to not accounting for the geographic realities of our state and the corresponding cost and infrastructure differences, the package’s funding formula was inequitable.
Because of the unique structure laid out in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (“ANCSA”), the previous plan’s calculation that was based on each Tribe’s annual revenue and number of employees was fundamentally unfair. ANCSA left Alaska’s Tribal governments without land to manage. This reality simultaneously limits Tribal employment opportunities and keeps annual revenues low.
In addition to a lack of land to manage, Alaskan Tribes do not have the opportunity to create jobs and revenue through sources common to other Tribes, like tobacco sales and casinos. In short, the CARES Act disbursement plan left Alaskan Tribes, that already have limited means to earn revenue, without sufficient support to protect their communities from COVID, let alone engage in any sort of long-term projects to alleviate the conditions that contribute to disease spread overall.
ANCSA also skewed how Tribal membership is counted in Alaska. Many Alaskan Native people are not formally enrolled in a Tribe – they may instead be shareholders of an Alaska Native corporation, which is sufficient to prove eligibility for federal Indian-specific programs. As a result, any distribution based on enrollment data will undercount Alaska Natives by a significant amount, especially for Alaska Natives that live in urban areas.
IHS user population data may be a better proxy for Tribal population. But, metrics aside, a population based distribution will never provide enough to overcome the structural obstacles that have hindered COVID response in Alaska’s remote Tribal communities. Individual villages are relatively small and we lose many members to our larger urban centers due to the inability to provide basic services, like water and sewer infrastructure and reliable internet. A population based distribution will not be sufficient to meet the overwhelming need in our communities.
Second, in addition to problems with generating income, the especially remote nature of Alaska’s Tribal communities has made it difficult to battle the pandemic. The vast distances from the nearest city have made it challenging for Tribes to access PPE, administer tests, and support those who test positive.
Due to the remote nature of their homes, Tribal members who develop acute symptoms must be transported by medevac to the nearest ICU. It is a sad reality that Tribal members have died while waiting for the weather to clear enough for a medevac team to arrive. In these cases, having supplies or trained individuals on the ground and in the community could have saved lives.
Remote living also presents a problem with housing, which makes social distancing virtually impossible. Because it is challenging and expensive to ship building supplies to the rural tundra, the few homes in town tend to house several generations of family members. The lack of housing combined with inter-generational living means that when a family member tests positive for the virus, there is often nowhere for them to isolate. The lack of social distancing combined with a lack of healthcare, PPE, cleaning supplies, and running water has led to a perfect storm for the spread of the virus.
Unfortunately, there are several Tribes in my region whose battle with the virus was so acute that only a few weeks after the first positive was detected, over fifty percent of their members contracted the virus.
The short construction season and late distribution of CARES Act funds also prevented many Tribal communities from shipping in building supplies in time to build adequate quarantine or isolation facilities.
Because most Tribal communities have no access to a hospital – or even a local health clinic – an effective vaccine distribution effort would have been impossible without a complicated and expensive plan. For example, the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation implemented “Operation Togo,” a plan that was so remarkable it made national news.
Operation Togo directed healthcare professionals to fly from village-to-village to inoculate Tribal members across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta (“Y-K Delta”). The delicate nature of the vaccine combined with the remote nature of Tribal communities led nurses to administer many shots on snowy runways before flying to the next village. This was not surprising given that most Alaska Tribal communities received their vaccines from healthcare professionals who came in for only a few hours before traveling to the next village.
Third, to complicate matters, many Alaskan Tribes still live without access to running water. Indeed, many Tribal members battle the virus by hauling water to their homes for cleaning and handwashing. The need for water infrastructure was clearly illustrated when the only source of water in a nearby village (Tuluksak) burned down in January.
Tribal members there had to boil river water for forty-five days before the problem was resolved. The health and safety of many other Tribal communities that rely on a singular water source are equally as precarious. Given that the stated purpose of the ARP is to improve water infrastructure, adequate funding is necessary for Alaska’s Tribes.
Fourth, the majority of Alaska’s Tribes do not have access to broadband internet connection. Even when communities have access to internet services, families must pay hundreds of dollars per month for a subscription. This has made it challenging for Tribes to communicate with the outside world.
For example, it is difficult for Tribal members to communicate with their doctors who work in a faraway city. This concern is especially acute when travel restrictions and COVID precautions have moved many Tribal members’ medical appointments online.
In addition to concerns about access to telemedicine, the lack of internet has made remote schooling especially challenging. When equity in education is already a top priority for Alaska’s Tribes, this only exacerbates a bad situation. After schools closed, Tribal communities that were fortunate enough to provide technology to each family have utilized an intranet system to allow students to work from home. Other communities asked teachers to deliver packets of homework for students to complete independently every week. Whatever the system, our students have not done well during the pandemic.
Indeed, one larger community has reported that between one third and one-half of students from early elementary school to middle school did not even turn enough homework to receive a grade for the first semester.
Funding for affordable broadband internet will address immediate educational challenges caused by the pandemic and will make great strides in our goal to improve equity in education for our students.
Fifth, even before the pandemic damaged our financial stability, Alaska’s Tribal communities were already impoverished. The high cost of living that necessarily comes with remote living only amplifies the effects of poverty. For example, because Alaska’s villages are not connected to an energy grid, most rely on imported oil for heat and generators that require imported diesel fuel for electricity.
Similarly, food and other necessities are especially expensive in Tribal communities. For example, a gallon of bleach could cost thirty dollars and a twelve ounce can of coffee beans can cost fifteen dollars-and that was pre-COVID surge pricing.
What’s more, problems caused by poverty and a high cost of living are left unchecked because there are simply very few jobs available. Here in Akiak, for example, one of our only opportunities for employment comes from the highly controversial Donlin Gold Project.
Finally, remote living and poverty limit our ability to address climate change, which has had an especially distinct impact on our Tribes. Alaska’s ancient communities face competing problems of extreme weather, melting tundra, erosion, flooding, and more.
To illustrate, Napakiak, which is about thirty miles downriver from Akiak, is anxious to find funding to replace its school that is a mere ninety-seven feet from being engulfed by the Kuskokwim River.
Other villages, like Newtok have already been forced to move their entire community to a new location due to rapid erosion.
Compliance and Reporting
The compliance and reporting requirements associated with the last distribution of Coronavirus Relief Funds (from the CARES Act) was confusing and burdensome. First, Treasury should issue clear guidance on the use of funds at the time of distribution. With the CARES Act funds, Treasury issued guidance and then updated that guidance and FAQ document just about every month thereafter.
With program guidelines constantly changing, it was nearly impossible to determine what was allowable. Moreover, many Treasury “clarifications” impacted expenditures Tribes had already made on an emergency basis to aid our Tribal members. We need clear rules that are easy to understand on where the lines are regarding allowable expenditures.
We should not need to rely on consultants and lawyers to provide guidance for every anticipated expenditure. And we need Treasury to be flexible in its interpretations to provide the maximum benefit to Tribal members instead of being overly restrictive and impeding those of us trying to help our communities.
Treasury should similarly make reporting relatively easy. Many Tribes are having to conduct an audit for the first time due to the influx of Tribal funds and they are new to this process. Having to conduct quarterly reports in a different software system is difficult and may overwhelm small Tribes.
Keep in mind that many of these Tribes have a Tribal Administrator that is handling COVID funds on top of their regular job duties – we do not have many skilled accountants or professionals in the village standing by that can be hired to help on a short-term basis solely for COVID. Thus, we must figure this all out on our own or hire an outside firm to provide assistance remotely. Treasury should keep in mind that the more we spend on consultants, the less we have for assistance to our Tribal members.
Communications, Training and Technical Assistance
We need more technical assistance from Treasury. Treasury should provide a number of consultation sessions where Tribes can ask more detailed questions about allowable expenditures and get clear answers. Similarly, before the first reports are due, Treasury should host webinars in which it walks Tribal staff through the reporting system and reporting requirements and answers questions from Tribes. These training and technical assistance would help those of us that are trying to wade through all these requirements on our own.
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Alaska’s Tribes were shortchanged by the prior distribution methodology. They have some of the most severe needs in the country and now need an allocation of $5-10 billion to transform our communities and bring them into the 21st century in terms of water, sewer, internet and other infrastructure needs. These needs have become crucial during this pandemic, as recognized by the stated goals of the American Rescue Plan. We need support in the distribution of PPE and cleaning supplies. We need support in the reduction of transmission, hospitalization, and death. But we also need support to develop our water and utility systems. We need access to high-speed internet. We need tools to improve our economic circumstances. And we need the government to fulfill its promise to help Tribal communities meet these needs.
Michael Williams, Sr., Chief
Akiak Native Community