The COVID-19 pandemic continues to significantly impact people around the world, but it has particularly hit the Native American communities hard. However, tribes have tried to meet the needs where the federal or state government may fail. In March 2019, Congress passed the CARES Act that provided hundreds of millions of dollars to tribes across the country, including tribes in Oklahoma. The use of the funds in terms of timeliness and effectiveness continues to meet immediate and future needs.

The Choctaw Nation received $200.8 million from the CARES Act. The southeastern Oklahoma-based tribe used more than $37 million to address food security for its citizens. Another $66 million was used for job protection, technology, prevention, infrastructure and supplies. 

The Chickasaw Nation used a portion of its funds to purchase tiny homes for citizens in need of places to quarantine away from family to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. The tribe also used its CARES Act money to provide virtual mental health resources to the community, something that has allowed them to maintain their pre-pandemic caseload. The Chickasaw Nation also used relief funds to renovate a former K-Mart facility into an emergency operations center, as well as an additional care facility on its medical campus that when not used for providing care will serve as a training facility for nurses and physicians.

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation recognized the likelihood of its young citizens having to do at least some virtual or distance learning due to the pandemic. To help Muscogee Creek families with the burden that accompanies virtual and distance learning, the MCN used some of its CARES Act money to help families buy laptops and gain Wi-Fi access. The MCN also used a portion of its $312 million to improve its food distribution efforts. Part of that investment is a meat processing facility that will provide easy access to quality meat for MCN citizens.

As for the Cherokee Nation? Well, leadership has used COVID-19 relief funds to address these needs and more. Through the CARES Act, the tribe received $411 million. The Cherokee Nation used $54 million to fund individual assistance programs, including disability assistance, elder safe assistance, elder utility assistance, technology grants for k-12 and higher education students and clothing assistance. The tribe used more than 43% of its funds to ensure employees were able to keep their jobs and not miss a paycheck. The Cherokee Nation also used about $27 million to address food security for its citizens by providing more than 7 million meals to its citizens. Around $38 million was used for PPE and disinfectant supplies, as well as PPE manufacturing equipment and materials, ambulances and facilities to house the tribe’s PPE manufacturing operations. To improve connectivity and distance learning for students, $27 million was invested in distance learning grants, telework and telehealth software and equipment, and access to broadband for Wi-Fi zones and hot spot devices. The Cherokee Nation also used $22 million for public health infrastructure projects, including socially distanced office space, medical facilities and upgrades, domestic violence facilities, general construction and water and sanitation projects.

The innovative and efficient use of the CARES Act dollars by tribes such as the Cherokee Nation and others has not only met the needs of citizens during this unprecedented time, but the tribes have also used the funds in a manner that citizens will continue to experience the benefits of the funds for years to come. Providing access to technology and Wi-Fi allows tribal citizens in school to not only maintain their progress now, but keeps them on track to achieve successes in the future. Investing in health care infrastructure with CARES Act money not only helps tribes to battle the COVID-19 pandemic today, but also allows the tribes to provide better health care to their citizens in the future. Taking relief funds and investing them in new enterprise operations will not only provide commodities such as food or PPE in the immediate future, but it creates jobs for tribal citizens and increases the economic impact in areas in need of economic development. During a difficult time, the tribes in Oklahoma have stepped up and tried to meet the needs of their citizens in the immediate and future, and we, as tribal citizens, are better off for it.