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Hopi Chairman Timothy Nuvangyaoma was one of a number of tribal witnesses who testified Wednesday to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee about the bureaucratic hurdles tribes face when trying to access federal infrastructure funding. (Photo by Lux Butler/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – The chairman of the Hopi tribe told a Senate panel Wednesday that promises of federal funding remain just that – promises – for smaller tribes for whom the money is inaccessible because of bureaucratic and financial hurdles.

The remarks by Hopi Chairman Timothy Nuvangyaoma were part of a Senate Indian Affairs Committee roundtable on challenges tribes are facing in getting projects approved under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act and others. Other tribal leaders from across the country shared similar frustrations.

Nuvangyaoma discussed how federal officials offered to fund improvements to the tribe’s power system if the Hopi could come up with a $10 million match – more than half the tribe’s annual $16 million general fund budget. He said that would force the tribe to choose between paying the cost match or funding schools and elderly services for that year.

“There’s a lot of impacted tribes just like us that don’t have the financial capability or stability to make these kinds of cost matches, to take advantage of such a great opportunity that’s on the table here for us and it bothers us,” Nuvangyaoma told lawmakers.

Nuvangyaoma and the Hopi are not the only tribe fighting this uphill battle: Tribal leaders from across the country joined the hearing to attest to the bureaucratic and financial hurdles they are all facing to receive the funds they desperately need.

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Jasmine Boyle, the chief development officer for Rural Alaska Community Action Program, said that for the 229 Alaskan tribes she represents, problems accessing funds from the federal government starts at the basics.

Government grant applications often require an online application and a physical address – and Alaskan tribal members do not have access to one or both, she said. By not having broadband internet access the tribe’s leaders can’t even begin to access government websites to apply for grants and other funds. If they do manage to get to somewhere with broadband, then they can’t file any type of paperwork because they do not have home addresses.

“The tools to access and continue to utilize these grants and the forward-facing grants coming out of the infrastructure investments and the Inflation Reduction Act were going to be complicated because our tribes don’t have connective tissue,” Boyle said,

“They often don’t have the internet to search for new competitive opportunities,” she said. “They often don’t get alerts about tribal set asides. And they often don’t have the human capacity.”

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation Nespelem in Washington state struggle to find stable power on their lands, said Jarred-Michael Erickson, chairman of the Colville Business Council, Jarred-Michael Erickson. The Colville Reservation is home to the Grand Coulee Dam and the tribe was promised lower electricity rates when the dam was built, something Erickson said has not happened.

“It’s sad when we have elders paying $600 a month in the winter when we have Grand Coulee Dam sitting right on our reservation and we have some of the highest power rates in the state in our area,” Erickson said.

Nuvangyaoma said tribes like his often lack basic infrastructure. Only 15% of the tribe’s homes have electricity, and they typically experience multiple power surges and outages a year that translate into wasted food and money, a “serious situation” for the community.

Hopi Chairman Timothy Nuvangyaoma testifies to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, with committee chairman Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, shown on the screen behind him. (Photo by Lux Butler/Cronkite News)

“From my own experience, our appliance freezer went out and Flagstaff is about 105 miles from the reservation, Winslow is about 65. So we have to travel to get our groceries,” Nuvangyaoma said. “So when surges and power outages happen, your storage has a tendency to thaw and spoil.”

He said the Hopi were excited about the installation of a 5,000-kilovolt power line through the middle of the reservation, until the federal government asked for a $10 million match from the tribe before it could connect them to that line.

Nuvangyaoma said the tribe had asked the Department of Energy to waive the $10 million match a month before the deadline but did not hear back until four months later – after he was called to testify at Wednesday’s round table. The waiver was denied, he said.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, the chairman of the committee, said he called the roundtable to address those challenges from bureaucrats. He even offered his personal staff to be “bird dogs” for the tribes in order to make sure agencies, like the Department of Energy, are doing their jobs.

“I’m irritated with the fact that President Biden is all in for Indian Country,” investments that were enshrined by Congress in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, Schatz said.

“It is not within the discretion of these agencies to make it difficult, and they are not doing you a favor by dispersing the money that we appropriated and authorized,” he said.

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