FARGO — North Dakota tribal leaders expressed deep concerns to federal officials on Wednesday, April 15, about the inability to receive loans for shuttered casinos as well as a lack of testing equipment on their reservations.

Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Mike Faith Jr. said in the conference call set up by U.S. Sen. John Hoeven that they had some reserves to pay casino employees so far, but were "running out of time" to continue to help workers as they sought clarification from the Small Business Administration on their loan program.

The problem, according to Hoeven's top aide on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, is that the federal CARES Act has a regulation in the SBA loan program for small businesses under 500 employees that only 30% of their revenue could come from gambling.

Thus, Native American casinos would be ineligible, but aide Mike Andrews said he has been working with the U.S. Treasury Department for a waiver to allow casinos to be approved for SBA's Paycheck Protection Program that provides forgivable loans if businesses keep workers on the payroll.

Andrews hopes to have an answer on the waiver this week.

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Hoeven said officials hope to boost funding in the SBA program from $350 billion to $600 billion as funds were being quickly used up by businesses.

"Casinos are usually the largest employers on reservations and this should be a priority," Hoeven said.

Mark Fox, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, said tribal casinos are different than the New Jersey and Nevada casinos because they provide for all tribal members whereas the others are private with profits only going to owners.

"We're greatly concerned," he said, adding his tribe also has problems receiving SBA aid for other small businesses on the reservation, many connected to the oil and gas industry that has been growing on the reservation for more than a decade but faces severe troubles.

In northeast North Dakota, Turtle Mountain Tribal Chairman Jamie Azure feels "blindsided" by the SBA program concerning casino aid.

"It seems like once we figure out something spending over two days on it, in the next hour we are set back two days," he said referring to SBA regulations.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, talks with North Dakota tribal leaders as well as other federal officials in a conference call on Wednesday, April 15.  Barry Amundson / The Forum
U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, talks with North Dakota tribal leaders as well as other federal officials in a conference call on Wednesday, April 15. Barry Amundson / The Forum

Another problem tribal businesses face is they aren't licensed by the secretary of state as required, but rather by tribes.

Andrews and Hoeven said other "pots of money" were available for tribes to seek aid for casinos and businesses such as a Bureau of Indian Affairs loan guarantee program or the nationwide Distressed Business Loan Guarantee program.

"This is a historic time and tribes need to take advantage of it," Andrews said in reference to the funds available. "You need to rise up and lift your communities up."

In addition to economic concerns, though, were pressing tribal public health worries.

Turtle Mountain Tribal Council member Nathan Davis and Azure were especially concerned about the lack of testing materials on the reservations. Spirit Lake Tribal Chairwoman Penny Cavanaugh worried about emergency backup plans if cases surged on her reservation and where patients would go.

Davis said Rolette County where their reservation is located has just one positive case of coronavirus, but it's the 11th largest county and ranks 42nd in the number of tests given.

He said about 20,000 tribal members reside in the county and the Indian Health Services clinic has only 160 tests.

Azure added some tribal elders who wanted tests at the IHS clinic were turned away. The tribe had asked for 500 tests, but they hadn't been received, Davis said.

"We have three or four generations living in one home with seven or eight people in each," Davis added about the rising concerns of community spread of the virus.

Additionally, many reservation members have underlying health conditions with the average life expectancy for residents only in the 50s for both men and women, making them more susceptible to the coronavirus, Davis said.

"At what point are we going to get some federal help?" Davis asked.

Fox, whose reservation has the most cases in Mountrail County at 26, said he was an advocate for "test, test, test."

Dr. Michael Toedt, chief medical officer for IHS, who was also on the call, said they plan to get more tests to rural areas and that more types were being developed that could add to the pool.

Hoeven listed programs available to tribes, including $8 billion in a virus emergency relief fund for the 540 tribes nationwide, $1 billion for the IHS, $450 million for the BIA, $325 million for reservation colleges, $350 million for housing assistance and $100 million for food aid, on top of Centers for Disease Control programs.