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Aliyah Chavez and Mark Trahant

Indian Country Today

At least 600 tribes and Alaska Native corporations are seeking a piece of a designated $8 billion relief package aimed at helping tribes respond to the coronavirus and stay afloat as many have had to close their casinos and other main income sources.

The deadline for applications was Friday, a day after six tribes sued the Treasury Department to ensure the money goes only to tribal governments, not to Alaska Native corporations. Indian Country Today received two copies of a spreadsheet with data from tribes that had applied for the tribal government relief package. The list was as of 11:47 a.m. EDT. It did not include the nation’s largest tribe, the Navajo Nation, which applied Friday at 5:30 p.m. MDT, a spokesman said. Other tribes could have submitted in the afternoon as well.

Of those that applied in the partial document, 55 percent, were Alaska Native tribes and corporations, while 45 percent were from tribes or corporations from the Lower 48, the documents show. The numbers could change slightly for two reasons. First some tribes had not yet applied and second other tribes are listed on the document twice using different statistics.

The Treasury and Interior departments have faced sharp criticism over the decision to make for-profit Alaska Native corporations eligible for funding in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act set aside for tribes.

The Interior Department has pointed to a definition in the federal bill that includes Alaska Native corporations as “Indian tribes.” But tribes argue the agency has taken a narrow view and that Congress intended the money go to federally-recognized tribes that have a government-to-government relationship with the U.S.

The Treasury Department asked all tribal governments and Alaska Native corporations seeking a portion of the funding to submit data on their population, land base, number of employees and expenditures. It is still deciding how much each tribe and corporation will receive.

The draft spreadsheet of the data collected provides an interesting snapshot of Indian Country.

One tribe, for example, the Telida Village Council reports a population of three.

On the other end of the scale, the Cherokee Nation lists 385,193 citizens.

The InterTribal Buffalo Council registered for the disbursement as a corporation, saying it represented a population of 950,000. The council represents 69 tribes in 19 states with a collective herd of over 20,000 buffalo.

The largest landholder on the list is the Calista Corporation, with 6,500,380 acres of fee land in Alaska.

“We will hold consultations with YK (Yukon-Delta Tribes) to determine how best to use any Tribal Relief Funding provided to Calista,” said Calista Corp. President-CEO Andrew Guy in a news release. “Additionally, Calista will seek to absorb management costs so that as many dollars as possible reach the YK Delta communities. Calista’s sole focus in participating in the Tribal Relief Program is to benefit YK Delta people and communities and not Calista’s corporate finances.”

Several tribal leaders said the fact that the information was leaked was a massive failure in protocol and security of proprietary information.

“The $8 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund in the CARES Act is intended for critical economic relief for tribal governments,” said Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, a Democrat from New Mexico. “The spirit of the bill is to help tribal communities who are facing the devastating consequences of the pandemic. These Tribal corporations are eligible for other funding streams outside of Indian Country allocations, and can further access the $1.03 billion IHS funding under the CARES Act. I encourage them to do that so no one in Indian Country is left behind.”

Haaland said there was also a problem with the structure. “At the end of the day, it's clear that the need is so much more than what this Administration was willing to provide, and we need more funds for Indian Country,” Haaland said. “We requested $20 billion – the Administration came back with zero. The little funding we were able to get in the CARES Act needs to be distributed to tribal governments.”

Meanwhile, the tribes that filed suit said they are not seeking any delay of the Treasury’s requirement to distribute the money by an April 26 deadline, but instead want the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to order that all $8 billion go to tribal governments. An email sent Friday after business hours to a Treasury Department spokesperson wasn't immediately returned.

The six tribes that sued are the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation and the Tulalip Tribes in Washington state, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians in Maine and the Akiak Native Community, Asa’carsarmiut Tribe and the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island in Alaska.

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They say there are two scenarios for the way the money could be divided: 

  • If the $8 billion is distributed to all tribes, including Alaska Native corporations, each would receive less than $10 million.
  • If it’s distributed equally among all tribal governments, not including Alaska Native corporations, each would receive “just under” $14 million. 

“Plaintiffs would thus lose approximately 30% of their properly allocated share,” of the funds, the complaint states.

Under the second scenario, the relief funds may be allocated based on the data collected in the certification form. If this approach is taken, “the ANCs will have an outsized impact,” the complaint states.

According to the complaint, Alaska Native corporations collectively own 44 million acres, which is “equivalent to the total trust land base of all federally recognized Tribal governments in the lower-48 states combined.”

(Related: 'Lost confidence' plus claims of unfair diversion for $8 billion fund)

“The notion that corporations incorporated under state law should be considered Tribal governments is shocking and will come at the expense of tribal governments, who are responsible for providing critical needs such as healthcare, housing, and education to their citizens,” said Teri Gobin, chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes. “We are struggling right now because we have no revenue coming in, and it’s going to take years to recover,” Gobin added.

The Tulalip Tribe needs federal relief funds to pay for additional expenses it has incurred to ensure it was equipped with COVID-19 testing capabilities, personal protective equipment and an additional ambulance, the complaint says.

President Amos T. Philemonoff Sr. of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island wrote a letter Friday to Alaska congressional leadership saying the community supports the “essential role” of corporations created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. However, it cannot support their inclusion in the relief funds because it’s an issue of sovereignty.

“We joined the Complaint late last night only after fully participating in the Department of Interior and Department of Treasury consultation process over the past week and seeing no changes to the interpretation of ‘tribal government,’” he wrote.

“The potential long-term detrimental consequences to the sovereign status of federally recognized tribes cannot go unrecognized.”

(Related: Open letter: Regarding the CARES Act and Tribal government allocation. 'Rectify this divisive situation')

The tribes are represented by Kanji & Katzen PLLC, which specializes in Indian Law.

Moving forward, it is expected that the tribes will file a motion for a temporary restraining order or injunction over the weekend. In addition, they will seek expedited court proceedings before the April 24 deadline. 

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