Rich tribes become richer with grants

Washington's Indian tribes so far have been awarded more than $94 million in federal stimulus funds, an unprecedented windfall for some of the neediest communities in the state.

Nationwide, $3 billion in grants, contracts and loans has been set aside for 564 federally recognized tribes in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. As a whole, Northwest tribes are faring better than most as the money filters down from federal agencies.

However, a News Tribune analysis of the money allocated so far shows that the stimulus funds are not helping all tribes in the state equally.

On the contrary, the stimulus package is having a rich-get-richer effect in Indian Country, broadening the wide gap between rich and poor tribes created by the relative success of their casinos.

Of the $94 million in stimulus grants, contracts and loans awarded to Washington’s 29 Indian tribes so far, $51 million has gone to five tribes, all among the state’s wealthiest.

Two South Sound tribes, the Nisqually and the Puyallup, are among the big winners.

As of Sept. 30, the most recent date for which totals are available, the Puyallup tribe of Indians had received $13.1 million and the Nisqually Indian tribe $12.3 million, money earmarked for dozens of projects ranging from housing and energy conservation to education, roads and law enforcement.

Both tribes landed multimillion-dollar Department of Justice grants to build new jails.

The Yakama Nation on the state’s east side, the Tulalip tribes and Lummi Nation, all of which have large, profitable casinos and well-diversified economies, also are among the big winners.

Meanwhile, the state’s less fortunate tribes so far have received comparatively little.

The Hoh tribe on the Olympic Peninsula, where unemployment exceeds 50 percent and which is struggling to relocate itself out of a flood plain, has received about $300,000.

The money covers a contract with the federal Department of Energy to install solar panels on its tribal administration building, preparatory work for a housing project and roadwork through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The chronically poor Shoalwater Bay tribe in Tokeland, about 80 miles west of Olympia, has received less than $150,000 – $50,000 through the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to disseminate an endangered beach plant called pink sand-verbena, and a $96,253 Housing and Urban Development grant to connect sewer and water lines to a tribal housing project.

“What happens with smaller tribes is we just don’t have the infrastructure to respond to grants,” said Alexis Barry, executive director of the Hoh tribe. “It takes having a community development department or a public works department or a housing program.”

“The big tribes have grant writers, and they can jump on that stuff,” Barry said. “It’s very difficult for us – not that we don’t wish them well.”

Ron Allen, executive director of the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe and former president of the National Congress of American Indians, agrees.

“A lot of small tribes have trouble accessing these resources because of a lack of staff or a lack of comfort level in how to pursue them,” he said. “Bigger tribes with more horsepower come into it with staff knowing what to do to compete.

“This stimulus money is not easy to access. There are a lot of hoops to jump through.”

But, Allen said, that should not be taken to mean money is going where it’s not needed.

“Everybody needs help,” he said. “They all have so much more to do and need more resources to get the job done.”

As tempting as it seems, a tribe’s political connections have little or nothing to do with its success in getting stimulus funds, said Emmett O’Connell, information and education officer with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

“It may look like that,” he said, “but what you’ll find is that the money is going to the tribes with capacity. A lot of the stimulus money, at least in the beginning, needed to go to shovel-ready projects. Tribes either had a project or they didn’t.”

For example, O’Connell said, the Nisquallys already were deeply involved in restoration projects in the Nisqually watershed, and the Tulalips were well into work on the $7.8 million Qwuloolt Estuary restoration project.

That made them natural fits for environmental restoration grants offered by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“They were ready to go,” O’Connell said. “They had those projects on the shelf. It might look like it’s political connections, but it’s really not.”

The heavy flow of stimulus dollars to shovel-ready projects is by no means unique to Indian tribes. To meet the federal goal of getting money into circulation quickly, speed has occasionally trumped need in nearly every sector.

There is no question that being prepared and having resources increases chances of getting funded. Many stimulus grants are competitive, pitting tribe against tribe. Speed can be critical.

For example, the Puyallup tribe was well-positioned with an architect and a planner under contract when HUD announced the availability of stimulus-funded grants.

The tribe asked the Seattle-based company Environmental Works to quickly expand a general feasibility study into a shovel-ready proposal that would work for HUD grant competition.

In record time, the company came up with complete plans for a 10-unit project, including a 2,160-square-foot community building.

HUD liked it, and in September awarded the Puyallups a $3 million stimulus grant for the project. Construction is expected to start next year.

Likewise, the Nisqually tribe was up and running with its commercial diving operation, Nisqually Aquatic Technologies, when stimulus money became available for environmental remediation.

The tribe landed a contract potentially worth as much as $650,000 to help remove abandoned fishing nets from the floor of Puget Sound. The tribal contract came through a $4.6 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the Northwest Straits Foundation, a nonprofit spinoff of the federally funded Northwest Straits Commission, based at Padilla Bay.

The competitive grant process can put poorer tribes at a disadvantage, says Stanley Speaks, Northwest regional director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Unfortunately, he said, some grant allocations based on mathematical formulas also favor larger – though not necessarily richer – tribes. As an example, Speaks used road-maintenance grants in the works through his agency.

“They’re awarded under a formula, depending on the number of miles of roads dedicated to a tribe or a reservation,” he said. “The larger the reservation, the more roads you have.”

Many times, small tribes have greater need, he said, but they qualify for less money.

“It’s unfortunate that’s the way it’s set out,” Speaks said, “but they go by a formula. We don’t control that here.”

None of the BIA’s road maintenance money funded in the stimulus act has been released to tribes yet, Speaks said.

“It has to go back to D.C. to be approved, then it’s funded,” he said.

Speaks cautioned against overestimating the value of stimulus funding for tribes.

“For this kind of funding, it’s a lot of money,” he said. “Our tribes just don’t get that kind of funding. But it’s a one-shot operation. When you consider the number of tribes and where it’s going, it can be a very small amount.”

Allen agreed.

Of the $3 billion set aside for tribes in the stimulus act, he noted, $2 billion is in the form of bonding potential – that is, the ability of tribes to issue tax-exempt bonds.

“When you take that away and then break that last billion down, it gets spread pretty thin,” he said.

Allen’s own tribe, the Jamestown S’Klallam, has received a relatively modest amount of stimulus dollars, about $272,000. That’s not because of a lack of bureaucratic savvy – Allen is among the most politically astute tribal leaders in the country, and the Jamestown S’Klallam’s economic success is widely regarded as a model for other tribes.

Instead, Allen said, his tribe was reluctant to get involved in some of the stimulus programs because of the strings attached.

In some cases, he said, accepting the federal stimulus money requires a degree of outside scrutiny or conformance to regulation that his and other tribes are unwilling to accept.

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693


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