Shinnecocks Get $1.8 Million From CARES Act Funding After Struggle Against For-Profit Corporations

The Shinnecock Nation has kept a food assistance and delivery service running for eight weeks, funded largely by the tribe and donations from food purveyors, so that residents of the Shinnecock Territory do not have to venture out for food and risk contracting coronavirus and spreading within the tribal community. Photos courtesy of Lance Gumbs

The Shinnecock Nation will receive more than $1.8 million in federal aid from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, which earmarks about $8 billion for Native American tribes.

The money will help the tribe expand communications infrastructures, fight homelessness and strengthen emergency preparedness, as well as provide payroll protection for employees who have been put out of work by shuttered programming on the tribal territory.

“It can do things like help us expand WiFi services so that kids can have access to learning and people can work at home,” Tribal Chairman Bryan Polite said this week. “And we can stock up on PPE and medical supplies.”

The tribe’s seven-member Council of Trustees will be crafting a relief fund management plan to present to federal officials overseeing the CARES Act spending, who must approve all of the expenditures.

Mr. Polite said that members of the Shinnecock leadership were integral in a lobbying effort by tribes in the lower 48 states to derail a guidance in the Native American aide package that would have allowed the Alaska Native Corporations — which are owned by native tribes but are for-profit corporations — to receive a substantial portion of the government aid funding.

If not for the lobbying and a lawsuit filed several tribes, the apportionment to tribes like the Shinnecock would have been much lower, tribal Vice Chairman Lance Gumbs said.

“We protested sending any of that to the ANCs because they are not tribal governments,” said Mr. Gumbs, who is also the longtime regional representative to the National Congress of American Indians. “Based on the formula they were using initially, they probably would have gotten the bulk of the money. This was supposed to be for the social programs of Indian communities, the 574 nationally recognized tribes.”

Mr. Gumbs said there have been calls for investigations into how the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs had initially set up the Native American aid package. One official, he said, formerly sat on a the board of one of the ANC companies that has reported $3 billion in annual revenues.

The tribe saw just four confirmed cases of coronavirus infection on the territory, though three tribal members who live outside the Shinnecock Neck community — two in nursing homes and one on the Poospatuck Nation territory — died from COVID-19, Mr. Polite said.

The tribal leaders credited the low incidence of cases to a robust food and supplies distribution program that the tribe set up starting almost immediately after business closures began. This week marks the eighth week that the tribe has organized meals, groceries and other goods from toilet paper to hand sanitizer for those members who live on Shinnecock, so that tribal members do not have to venture out. Panera Bread and Island Harvest have donated meals and food to the effort and the tribe has used its emergency funds and public fundraising on GoFundMe to keep a supply of meals going to feed members. Meals have been delivered to senior citizen members, so that they could stay isolated from others.

“We’ve been feeding people who have been out of work, but also to keep people from going off the reservation and bringing the virus back into the community,” Mr. Gumbs said.

“We’ve been very blessed to not have a bad outbreak,” Mr. Polite added.

The tribe is also now able to conduct 15-minute coronavirus tests at the tribal health center on the territory. A doctor or nurse practitioner from Stony Brook Southampton Hospital is on call at the health center five days a week and can administer the diagnostic tests and process them on-site, Mr. Gumbs said, one of the first local facilities to be able to do so.