Alaskan tribe joins opposition to funding for tribes going to Alaska Native corporations

Joaqlin Estus

COVID-19 emergency $8 billion fund on the table

By Joaqlin Estus

The Akiak Native Community of Alaska has joined some Lower 48 tribes that oppose the coronavirus relief funds for tribes going to for-profit corporations created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Akiak is a Yup’ik village of about 350 people located on the Kuskokwim River in western Alaska.

The Akiak tribe wrote to the secretaries of the Interior and Treasury urging them to reject calls to allow Alaska Native for-profit corporations to apply for funds from the same pot of money as tribes.

“The Fund was set up under 5001 of Title V of the CARES Act to provide assistance to governments — States, local governments and tribal governments,” the Akiak tribe stated in its letter. “The whole point of the fund is to cover public services provided by governments, not to make payments to private companies.”

The village makes the point the Alaska Native for-profit corporations are private companies controlled by a board and shareholders, and corporations are not tribal governments.

The tribe goes on to say Alaska Native corporations formed under the settlement act no doubt are experiencing financial difficulties as a result of COVID-19, and Congress may need to assist them at some point. But the CARES Act was intended by Congress strictly to assist governments, says Akiak.

Akiak echos objections raised by the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association in a letter sent to the Treasury and Interior secretaries on Tuesday. The association is made up of more than a dozen tribal chairmen and presidents from 16 tribes.

However, the CARES Act uses the definition of tribes set out in another law, the Indian Self-Determination Act, which includes Native corporations. In addition to Alaska’s 12 regional corporations, 200 village corporations are also eligible for funds from the same $8 billion pot as 574 federally recognized tribes, including 229 Alaska Native village governments.

A spokesperson for the Interior Department said Tuesday agency leadership is “dutifully following the law set forth in the CARES Act, passed by an overwhelming bi-partisan majority, which provides $8 billion in financial assistance to tribal governments and specifically includes ‘Alaska regional or village corporations as defined in or established pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.’”

The heads of four Alaska Native regional corporations Tuesday came out with a strong vote of support for assistant Secretary of Interior Tara Sweeney, Inupiaq, who was involved in the decision making on the issue.

Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

(More information: Indian Country's COVID-19 syllabus — Data, story summaries, lists of closures, resources)

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