The federal government is moving quickly to transfer $8 billion to tribes. So fast in fact that it’s reopening an old question: Should Alaska Native corporations be considered the same as tribes?

Secretary of Treasury Steven T. Mnuchin and the Bureau of Indian Affairs will accept comments from tribes with a Monday deadline. Then the money is supposed to be transferred “not later than 30 days after the enactment” on March 27 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or CARES act.

National Congress of American Indians’ President Fawn Sharp, Quinault, wrote Mnuchin Saturday, saying that the funding should be “distributed to Tribal governments.” However, she said the legislation uses a definition that lumps federally recognized tribes together with for-profit corporations created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

“It is important to note the distinction between Alaska Native tribal villages and ANCSA regional or village corporations,” Sharp wrote. “Alaska Native tribal villages exercise sovereign governmental authority over their lands and citizens, possess a government-to-government relationship with the United States, and are “Tribal governments” under Section 601. Alaska regional or village corporations, on the other hand, are businesses incorporated under Alaska state law as authorized under ANCSA that do not have a political relationship with the federal government.”

Sharp said the Alaska Native corporate obligations to shareholders are not consistent with that of a government.

“These corporations,” Sharp said, unlike tribes “are subject to the laws and regulations of a sovereign that is on par with tribal nations . . . the State of Alaska.”

Sharp’s letter was blunt: “These funds will be critical to assist Tribal governments in withstanding the impacts of COVID-19.” 

If the 13 regional Alaska Native Corporations, and the 270 village corporations are included in the fund that would significantly reduce the funds available to 574 federally-recognized tribes, including those in Alaska.

“Treasury and Interior should resist any suggestions from non-Tribal government entities to confuse this duty with a broader mandate, not supported by the law, to distribute ... beyond the federally recognized Tribal governments,” Sharp wrote.

Not all of Alaska’s tribal citizens are shareholders in a corporation, so they would not receive dividends and are not eligible for scholarships and other corporate benefits. In addition, some corporate shareholders are not members of any tribe.

A consultation letter Monday from the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Association went further. 

"Please do not allow Alaska Native Corporations to be counted as Tribal governments under the CARES Act ... that would be contrary to the plain language of the CARES Act, and it would allow for double or triple counting of Alaska Natives since members of federally-recognized Alaska Native villages are also shareholders in Alaska Native Regional Corporations and Alaska Native Village Corporations," wrote Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and chairman of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Association.

Great Plains said it would be improper for Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney to advocate for that position within the Trump administration. Sweeney is Alaska Native and worked for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation before her appointment. 

Sweeney could not be reached for comment.

Alaska Native corporations also have profit-making as their primary mission, not governmental services such as public safety, health, or education. Still, Alaska Native corporate businesses, which range from telecommunications, fisheries, oil and gas support, to logging have been deeply impacted by the national emergency. Tribal enterprises can also apply for other provisions in the act.

Corporations have generated expenses and lost income due to COVID-19. Some corporations may be losing money because employees were sent home for their safety but remain on the payroll. Many corporations have generated educational materials for shareholders about how to avoid contracting COVID-19. Others have donated money to food banks, tribes, and charities helping with COVID-19 response.

The departments of Treasury and Interior held teleconferences last week seeking comments from tribal leaders. Tribal governments can submit written comments to and no later than Monday, April 13, 2020. The Treasury Department would like to begin payments on April 24.

The CARE Act has a provision for Tribal Government Relief Fund, some $8 billion to fund tribal governmental services. It’s the single largest investment in Indian Country in the history of the country, yet given the nature of this crisis falls short of what funds are actually needed to meet the challenges.

Several Alaska Native corporations contacted for this story were not available for comment.

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Joaqlin Estus and Mark Trahant contributed to this story.