Chief gives updates on tribe during McAlester visit

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Jul. 8—Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton visited with District 11 tribal elders Wednesday and gave updates on various tribal issues.

Batton was invited by District 11 Tribal Councilman Robert Karr to celebrate the full reopening of the McAlester Community Center during Wednesday's weekly senior lunch — the first in-person lunch since the pandemic began last year.

All 17 community centers throughout the tribe's 10-and-a-half county area opened Wednesday.

"We went through a pandemic; we went through a Trail of Tears, and we're still here," said Batton. "And we went through this pandemic and we're still here and we're going to be here and we're going to be stronger than ever before and it's because of you, our people."

Batton gave an update on the tribe's plan for the $944 million dollars received from the American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden in March.

"We're hoping to receive final guidance on that this month and then we're hoping to put the applications out in August and September so we can start issuing a check in the month of October," said Batton.

The chief said although the tribe "does not know exactly" what relief programs will end up being offered, there is a plan being made.

"We just don't know if it's going to be allowed," said Batton.

One program Batton mentioned was the Elder Food Security Program that is currently being ran on tribal dollars through August in which tribal members aged 55 and older enrolled in the program receive $200 per month for food.

"We just want to continue that on for the next, hopefully, two years," said Batton.

The chief said plans are also in the works for elders to receive assistance on housing costs such as rent and mortgage payments or utilities.

"We're also looking at giving a $500 technology allowance," said Batton.

For tribal members aged 18-54, Batton said the tribe is looking into giving a $500 living allowance and a $500 technology allowance with children under the age of 18 being given a $300 living and $400 technology allowances.

Batton did not specify if the planned allowances would be a one-time payment or recurring.

"What we're doing, and I don't know if it's right or wrong, we just believe our seniors are to be held in high respect and regards and so that's the reason they're going to be getting more," said Batton.

Batton said although he doesn't mind talking about what the tribe has in mind for the ARPA money, it all can change depending on how the U.S. Treasury Department allows the money to be spent.

A new application will have to be filled out for any new COVID relief programs offered by the tribe.

Batton also said he hopes the final rules given by the federal government will not have any income guidelines.

"What we'd love to is, if you're a tribal member, you attest that you have been affected by COVID, and you get your dollars," said Batton. "That's what we hope, but just this last week we heard they might put income limits on it. If they do, then we have to reprogram and rethink."

In McAlester, Batton said the tribe is looking at using the ARPA money to double the number of providers at the tribe's clinic and an expansion of the childcare center along with a gym at the wellness center.

The chief also said an additional 47 homes will be built in Pittsburg County for eligible tribal members.

Batton also gave an update on an initiative to consider tribal membership for Choctaw Freedmen.

"We believe there is documentation that the Freedman either chose to be a U.S. citizen or a citizen of the Choctaw Nation," said Batton. "If they chose to be a member of the U.S., then they chose not to be a member of the Choctaw Nation. So that's our stance."

But Batton said at the same time he is "open" because of the uncertainty on the tribe's history involving the Freedman.

"There is no documentation on how it all went down," said Batton.

Batton said that he will create a committee to explore where the Freedman stand within the tribe but that any ultimate decision to allow Freedman to become members of the tribe will be a vote by the people on a constitutional amendment.

"We don't know where this will take us," said Batton. "That's the reason why it's just an exploratory phase, just to see what really has happened in our history and if it can even be documented or anything else."

Contact Derrick James at djames@mcalesternews.com

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