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Navajo Nation sues US Treasury for COVID-19 funds

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez gives a COVID-19 video update from a food distribution site in Jeddito, Arizona, on Thursday. (Source: Facebook)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Navajo Nation has joined 10 other tribal governments suing the U.S. Treasury Department over distribution of federal COVID-19 emergency dollars, the Navajo Nation Office of the President said in a news release Wednesday. The initial lawsuit was filed by six tribes last week in U.S. District Court.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, includes $8 billion in emergency funds for tribal governments to address the pandemic.

More than 200 Alaska Native Corporations are eligible for that funding, the Treasury Department confirmed Thursday. The Associated Press reports that there will be a hearing Friday in U.S. District Court on a request from several tribes that the Treasury be prevented from allocating the funds to the corporations.

Tribes say in the lawsuit that the for-profit entities, unique to Alaska, are run by boards and shareholders, and should not qualify as tribal governments.

“While the Secretary has not yet announced a formula to disburse the funds, including the Alaska Native Corporations in the calculation will reduce the funds available for tribal governments,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement. “The impact on the Navajo Nation will be significant because of the Nation’s size, population and the already disparate impact of COVID-19 on the Nation.”

In an April 14 letter to the Treasury and Interior departments, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said the decision contradicts the purpose of helping tribal governments to continue essential services and prevent further spread of the virus.

“Non-governmental Tribal entities may well warrant relief under other CARES Act programs, but this funding in this title was intended for Tribal governments and should not be diverted,” wrote Udall, who is the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Nez has connected with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to help supplement shipments of federal supplies.

“If the federal government can’t get the aid to us quickly, let’s somehow help each other out,” Nez said Thursday during a live video update from a food distribution site in Jeddito, Arizona.

The Navajo Nation will send New York more shipments of medical gloves produced at the Rhino Health factory in Church Rock, New Mexico. The factory has supplied gloves to Indian Health Service hospitals and non-Native clinics across the country.

In return, Nez said Cuomo committed to assisting the Navajo Nation with supplies.

The Navajo Nation announced 78 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, bringing the total on the reservation to 1,360. The Navajo Epidemiology Center reported three additional COVID-19 deaths. Fifty-two Navajo people on the reservation have died from the disease. The average age of COVID-19 cases on the reservation is 48, and the average age of those who have died is 65.

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