Judge: Alaska Native corporations can get relief funds

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

Dalton Walker

‘This disaster assistance will provide immediate support to Alaska's rural communities suffering from COVID-19 and help repair the economic damage caused by the pandemic’

Dalton Walker

Indian Country Today

A federal judge has ruled Friday that Alaska Native corporations are eligible to receive relief funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

The judge initially ruled to halt distribution for part of the $8 billion relief funds to the corporations, a request from tribal nations. Nearly two months later, the same judge ruled on Friday that the corporations are eligible to receive funds.

U.S District Judge Amit Mehta’s decision said the Alaska Native corporations “are ‘Indian Tribes,’ and that their boards of directors are ‘Tribal governments,’ for the purposes of the CARES Act,” according to the 36-page court document.

The decision allows U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnunchin, a defendant in the case, to distribute $162.3 million for Alaska Native corporations from an initial disbursement that was based on population data, according to court documents. The total hasn't publicly been disclosed.

The Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka said she was pleased with the court’s decision.

“Alaska has a unique history of tribal self-governance and Native self-determination,” Kitka said in a statement. “Our people have never understood these concepts to be mutually exclusive. Alaska Natives are pleased Judge Mehta reached the same conclusion, particularly during the COVID-19 global health pandemic.”

Some 20 tribes filed a suit in April that opposed any funds going to the corporations. Tribes argued that the relief money was intended for the 574 federally-recognized tribes that have government-to-government relationships with the U.S.

“The court’s decision simply recognizes that ANCs are eligible for CARES Act funds, as Congress intended - no more, no less,” according to the court document.

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe still doesn’t think so.

"We sincerely believe that Alaska Native corporations are not governments and should not be allowed to access funding that is intended to go to tribal governments," said Rémi Bald Eagle, a spokesman for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota.

The Treasury Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Alaska Native corporations are unique to Alaska and own most of the Native land in the state under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The corporations were not party to lawsuits regarding the relief funding but have said they support Alaska Natives economically, socially and culturally.

"This disaster assistance will provide immediate support to Alaska's rural communities suffering from COVID-19 and help repair the economic damage caused by the pandemic," said Kim Reitmeier, executive director of the ANCSA Regional Association.

Tribes had expressed concern that a ruling in favor of the corporations would lead to competition between tribal nations and the corporations for limited federal resources.

Mehta disputed that, saying his ruling in no way elevates the corporations to "super tribal status," as some plaintiffs argued, or fosters competition.

The Alaska Federation of Natives said it understands that the more than 200 Alaska Native tribes have sovereignty that doesn't extend to corporations through any federal law or policy.

The National Congress of American Indians said it was "extremely disappointed" in the decision.

"NCAI continues to believe that Congress intended for Title V CARES Act funding to be distributed to Indian tribal governments," read a statement.

Tribes only started to receive some of CARES Act money on May 5, weeks after the bill was signed into law. Only 60 percent of the $8 billion was distributed at that time. Tribes finally received the rest of relief money earlier this month while others, like the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, have recently announced how they’re going to use the funding.

Some tribes have argued that the formula used to distribute funds relied on inaccurate data. The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development released a report in May that examined the formula, saying the Treasury Department ignored up-to-date information.

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @daltonwalker

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Indian Country Today LLC is a nonprofit news organization owned by the nonprofit arm of the National Congress of American Indians. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently.

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