Indian Country Today and The Associated Press
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Is a for-profit corporation the same as a tribal government? Should it have the same rights and government-to-government relationship with the federal government that federally recognized tribes have?
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on the dispute, which stems from a debate over COVID relief funding and has drawn the attention of tribes across the country as well as Alaska Native corporations.
Tribes say the corporations are trying to acquire the rights of tribal governing bodies without the responsibilities and obligations. The corporations say they need federal money to be able to take care of Natives’ well-being.
Funding in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act triggered the debate. Lower courts split on whether Alaska Native corporations, which own most Native land in the state under a 1971 settlement, should receive a share of the $8 billion allocated last year for tribes.
The U.S. Treasury Department sought review from the high court after a federal appeals court ruled in September that the corporations aren't eligible.
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The Treasury Department said if the decision stands, the corporations will lose out on "hundreds of millions of dollars" in funding and be deprived of their ability to help Alaska Natives when it comes to health care, education and economic well-being.
The Supreme Court included the case on its order list Friday. It's unclear whether it will be argued in the spring or fall session. The key question is whether the corporations are considered "tribes" under the CARES Act.
The case has required judges, attorneys, tribes and the Alaska corporations to pick apart language of the act, congressional intent and a 1975 federal law meant to strengthen tribes' ability to govern themselves.
More than a dozen Native American tribes sued the Treasury Department last year to try to keep the money out of the hands of the corporations. They argued it should go only to the 574 tribes that have a government-to-government relationship with the United States.
Most of the money, except for about $530 million, has been distributed to Native American governments, according to court documents.
Tribes initially had until Dec. 30, 2020, to spend the money, but a bill that President Donald Trump recently signed extended the deadline for another year.
The case is being closely watched around Indian Country for its broader implications.
"The case is also about more than money," said Paul Spruhan, an attorney with the Navajo Nation, which is a plaintiff in the case. "It is also about the role of the Alaska Native corporations as opposed to Native Villages and other actual tribal sovereigns and whether such business entities should ever have the same status of bona fide tribes."
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta in Washington, D.C., ruled in June that the corporations can be treated as tribal governments for limited purposes, in an initial victory for the U.S. Treasury Department.
The corporations have argued their roles are essential in supporting the more than 230 Alaska Native villages through employment opportunities, job training, scholarships, cultural preservation programs, land management and economic development.
"We hold strong our belief that Alaska Native people should not be punished for the unique tribal system that Congress established for the state 50 years ago," the ANCSA Regional Association and the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association said in a statement on Friday.
In a related matter, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit revived a case that the Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma filed against the Treasury Department over the initial disbursement of CARES Act funding to tribes based on population. The department relied on a formula used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which showed the Shawnee and two dozen other tribes had no citizens. Each received the minimum $100,000 in relief funding.
The Shawnee Tribe said its actual population is more than 3,000 and argued it was shortchanged by millions of dollars.
Mehta also heard that case and ruled that the Treasury Department has discretion in how it distributes the funding and, therefore, it wasn't subject to court review.
The appellate court has sent the case back to the district court for a ruling on the merits.
Indian Country Today National Correspondent Joaqlin Estus contributed to this story.
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