Alaska Native Corporations ineligible for coronavirus funds

This June 6, 2019, photo shows the U.S. Treasury Department building at dusk in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Kolby KickingWoman

UPDATED: Three-judge panel rules the $8 billion in federal relief funding set aside by Congress should go to the country’s 574 federally recognized tribes

Kolby KickingWoman
Indian Country Today

Alaska Native Corporations are not eligible to receive any of the $8 billion of the federal coronavirus relief money set aside for tribes, an appeals court ruled Friday.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit determined Alaska Native Corporations are not tribal governments.

In March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, commonly known as the CARES Act. The U.S. Treasury Department concluded in April that Alaska Native Corporations were eligible to receive portions of the CARES Act funds set aside for tribes.

Shortly thereafter, three separate groups of tribes filed lawsuits to challenge the decision. They argued the money should go only to the 574 tribes that have government-to-government relationships with the U.S., not Alaska Native Corporations.

Attorneys for the corporations disagreed and said the money could be used for housing and medical facilities, lighting at an airstrip where supplies are delivered for remote communities, and for storing food and protective equipment.

Friday’s opinion noted the CARES Act designated the $8 billion in relief money for tribal governments, or the “recognized governing body of an Indian tribe.” Judge Gregory Katsas wrote that Alaska Native Corporations do not meet the criteria for tribal governments as defined by the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act.

“The ANCs have not satisfied the recognition clause as we construe it,” Katsas writes. “They do not contend that the United States has acknowledged a political relationship with them government-to-government.”

Further, Katsas wrote that “recognizing Native corporations as sovereign entities would undercut the case for so recognizing the traditional Native villages.”

Big Fire Law & Policy Group, which represented some of the tribes in the case, called the ruling a "great result in a hard-fought appeal."

“Victory for federally recognized Indian tribes!” the firm posted on Facebook. 

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., though not part of the lawsuit, also lauded the decision while noting tribes should be granted an extension for spending the relief money.

“This win, of course, comes at a cost to tribal governments of something very valuable: time,” Hoskin said. “But, it is a win that should demonstrate even further to Congress that Indian Country deserves a deadline extension to spend CARES Act funds and that prompt action is warranted.”

(Related: Coronavirus aid: Too many strings, not enough relief for tribes)

On the other side of the debate, supporters called the opinion a “devastating blow” to Alaska Native communities.

“We fear this deeply flawed ruling will only make things worse by keeping critical health services and economic relief from reaching our remote communities and villages who are most at risk,” Kim Reitmeier, executive director of the ANCSA Regional Association, said in a joint statement with the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association 

She added Alaska Native communities are uniquely organized, and that has not previously come into question.

“Until today, our status as Indians under the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act, which expressly includes Alaska Native Corporations among other types of Indian Tribes, has never been called into doubt,” she said.

Judge Karen Henderson noted in the opinion that federal Indian law is complex, and the “pressure to provide swift relief may have proved too much in this case.”

“Although I join my colleagues in full, I write separately to express my view that this decision is an unfortunate and unintended consequence of high-stakes, time-sensitive legislative drafting,” Henderson wrote.

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Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports for the Washington Bureau. For hot sports takes and too many Lakers tweets, follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

This story has been updated with additional comment.

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