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U.S. Treasury to begin distributing virus relief money to tribes

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The U.S. Treasury Department said Tuesday that it will begin doling out billions in coronavirus relief funding to tribes 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 set aside $8 billion for tribal governments. It 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.

Payments totaling $4.8 billion will go out 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 agency said.

“Our approach is based on the fair balancing of tribal needs,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

Tribes are relying on the money to stay afloat, respond to the coronavirus and recover after having to shut down casinos, tourism operations and other businesses that serve as their main moneymakers.

States, cities and counties already have received funding under the relief package. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said tribes have suffered crippling economic effects from the pandemic.

“Tribal leaders will continue to seek justice, speak out and request funding until tribal governments are made whole with COVID-19 response and recovery funding,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

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