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Joaqlin Estus

Indian Country Today

It's hard to imagine the tone in Washington getting any worse. Until today.

In an unusual public spat involving a high-ranking Interior Department official, the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs quickly struck back following a Twitter jab from U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Schumer on Thursday waded into the fight over Assistant Secretary Tara Sweeney's handling of coronavirus relief funding for tribes, saying she used her position to help Alaska Native corporations, including one she once worked for.

“We can’t put these corporations before tribal governments & people,” he tweeted. “Sweeney used to be an exec for an ANC [Alaska Native corporation], and she wants to profit!”

Sweeney, Inupiaq, responded: “@SenSchumer Even for you, this is an ignorant and despicably low attack that could not be further from the truth. Perhaps you should read the law you negotiated and voted for as Alaska Natives are entitled to receive the funding from @USTreasury.”

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy also joined the Twitter debate, defending Sweeney and telling Schumer: “I am appalled that you would consider excluding our Alaskan Native entities.”

The fight follows tribes’ sharp criticism of a decision by the departments of Interior and Treasury to make Alaska Native corporations eligible for funding in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act set aside for tribes. The Interior Department has said it is following the law.

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

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe announced Thursday it plans to file an injunction to stop the federal government if it takes steps to implement its decision on distributing the funding. The Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association, which represents 16 tribes in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, and the Native Village of Akiak of Alaska earlier voiced their opposition in letters to the federal agencies.

Also Thursday, the Navajo Nation said in a statement that it advocated strongly for inclusion of tribes in the CARES act, and “now we must continue fighting to keep what was allocated to us.”

Navajo Nation president Jonathan Nez wrote, “The $8 billion tribal set-aside should provide much-needed relief to tribes, not for-profit corporations. These for-profit corporations will take away resources from tribes.”

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Sweeney is the former vice president of the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., a for-profit company created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Arctic Slope is the wealthiest of the 12 existing regional Native corporations due to annual revenues, which in 2018 came to $3 billion, from oil and gas-related assets.

(Related: Alaskan tribe joins opposition to funding for tribes going to Alaska Native corporations)

In addition to Alaska’s 12 regional corporations, 200 village corporations are eligible for CARES funds. They would draw from the same $8 billion pot as 574 federally recognized tribes, including 229 Alaska Native village governments.

“Congress directed this — it’s clear as day,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said. He told Politico that Schumer’s attack on Sweeney is a “bunch of bull----” and an attempt at character assassination. “It’s going to be a little embarrassing when he finds out he signed off on that definition.”

Republicans in the Senate and the administration say the law is clear. But the language that authorized the participation of Alaska Native corporations was a definition for another law inserted into the massive bailout bill. Democrats say congressional intent was to support tribes, not for-profit corporations, with the Tribal Government Relief Fund.

The section of the CARES Act setting aside money for state, local and tribal governments cites the Indian Self Determination and Educational Assistance Act, or Public Law 93-638. That law includes the following definition: “Indian tribe means any Indian tribe, band, nation, or other organized group, or community, including pueblos, rancherias, colonies and any Alaska Native Village, or regional or village corporation as defined in or established pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which is recognized as eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to Indians because of their status as Indians.”

Tribes contend the corporations do not fit that definition of a tribe under the Self Determination act.

The Interior Department said in a statement Wednesday that Sweeney is committed to supporting all American Indians and Alaska Natives, "and to suggest she has personal motives or that she is attempting to divert funds away from American Indians is completely false."

"Her approach has always been focused on inclusiveness, transparency and partnerships," the agency said in the statement in response to the letter from the Great Plains Chairmen’s Association. "It is unfortunate that during a time of historic appropriations for the Native American community, some are seeking to divide the community and are suggesting we ignore the mandate of Congress and exclude eligible entities as defined by law.”

The Navajo Nation is an example of tribes that have been particularly hard-hit by the coronavirus. As of Wednesday, it had 921 positive COVID-19 cases and 38 deaths. The disease’s peak on the Navajo reservation is not expected until mid-May.

The letter from Nez concluded, “We are praying for the best, and preparing for the worst. If the projections are accurate, we have a long way to go in terms of providing health care treatment, hospital beds, ventilators, and much more. … We strongly urge the Department of the Interior and the Department of the Treasury to re-evaluate their position and do what is right for all tribes.”

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