Last Friday in the Yellen v. Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation case, the Supreme Court ruled that decades of services and federal programs for Alaska Native communities should continue.
The case began with the question of whether Alaska Native people were eligible for the same pandemic relief funds that have been delivered to Indigenous communities across the nation, but it quickly evolved and soon put into jeopardy many of the health and social services that Alaska Native people have relied upon since the 1970s.
As Alaska Native people, we are thrilled that our Alaska Native communities will receive the same level of CARES Act funding that other Lower 48 communities have enjoyed for 15 months.
As Indigenous people, we have a right to be treated equally under the law.
Unfortunately, misunderstandings around Alaska’s unique model of Native organizations working together to serve Alaska Native people—a model set up by Congress—have forced us to spend countless time, energy and resources repeatedly advocating for our status as Native peoples.
As noted by the justice’s case opinion, “Alaska is the exception, not the rule.” Our model of self-determination in Alaska looks differently than other places in America. The Supreme Court case is the latest example of parties questioning our self-determination, and we hope it will be the last.
Alaska Native corporations were established 50 years ago by Congress to promote the social, cultural, and economic advancement of Alaska Native people. This new model was billed as an alternative model to the reservation system.
Our unique entities, not simply “corporations” in the traditional sense, manage land rights and care for the wellbeing of our communities, oftentimes stepping in to provide health and social services promised by the federal government.
And while it hasn’t been perfect, the arrangement of Alaska Native corporations receiving federal funding to provide critical services to their communities has worked for us.
It’s why, for years, Congress and executive agencies have recognized Alaska’s unique system when administering federal programming. It’s also why Alaska Native corporations were included in the tribal funding section of the CARES Act relief package. Services and support provided by Alaska Native corporations are critical to ensuring Alaska Native people have access to the same support, dollar for dollar, available to Native Americans in the Lower 48.
Alaska Native corporations’ right to provide benefits and services to our Native people does not, and has never, threatened the rights of federally recognized tribes.
In fact, in the Supreme Court opinion, the justices note that our organizations “have never been ‘recognized’ by the United States in a sovereign political sense…[however,] under the plain meaning of the Indian Self Determination Act, Alaska Native corporations are Indian tribes, regardless of whether they are also federally recognized tribes.”
They explained that the decision “does not ‘vest Alaska Native corporations with new and untold tribal powers,’ as respondents fear. It nearly confirms the powers congress expressly afforded Alaska Native corporations and that the executive branch has long understood Alaska Native corporations to possess.”
In a moment when we should be standing beside each other, working together to support all of our Indigenous communities, we continue to see some organizations advocating that Alaska Native corporations receive unequal or lesser treatment from the federal government. This pandemic has disproportionately impacted all Indigenous communities, including our own.
Last week’s Supreme Court decision reaffirmed that Alaska Native people qualify for the government programs and funding for which we have been eligible for decades, the same programs and funding that Native groups across the United States receive.
We are relieved to see this long standing precedent, established by Congress fifty years ago, upheld, and some equity restored to Alaska’s Native communities.
With the lawsuit behind us, Alaska Native corporations remain committed to working in partnership with all Native organizations to remedy the damage wrought by COVID in our communities and to advocate for the shared priorities of Indigenous people across the nation.