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Gail Schubert, President and CEO of Bering Straits Native Corporation
Sophie Minich, President and CEO of CIRI
Sheri Buretta, Chairman of the Board, Chugach Alaska Corporation
Shauna Hegna, President of Koniag

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and other lower 48 tribes have been publicly suggesting that Assistant Secretary Sweeney’s support of Alaska Native corporation inclusion in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act is biased due to her standing as a shareholder of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, an Alaska Native Corporation (ANC). Some have gone so far as to call it a “money grab” and to ask for her resignation.

What is being portrayed by NCAI in the media and in letters to Congress and the executive branch is patently false. These allegations show a lack of understanding of who Tara Sweeney is, what the CARES Act says, who is responsible for the allocation of funds, and the role of Alaska Native corporations.

Let’s start with Assistant Secretary Sweeney. She is the second woman in history to hold her position and the first Alaska Native. A graduate of Cornell University, she has dedicated her life to serving Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian causes. She is a lifetime member of NCAI and has successfully advocated across Indian Country on matters of importance to tribal members. Moreover, she earned the right to serve in this post because of her intellect, education, ethical and moral values, and experiences growing up in remote Alaskan Inupiat villages. Tara Kutuk Sweeney has a mission to serve and does not play favorites.

Assistant Secretary Sweeney’s service to Indian Country included serving as chair of the Arctic Economic Council as well as membership on the Coast Guard Foundation Board of Trustees, the FCC Advisory Committee on Diversity for Communications in a Digital Age, Koahnic Broadcast Corporation and the Cherokee Nation New Market Tax Credit Advisory Board.

We are proud of Assistant Secretary Sweeney for what she has accomplished and the way she has held herself while facing undue criticism. Alaska Native corporation leaders may not always agree with all of her policy choices, but we know her decisions will always be thoughtful and well-reasoned.

We stand behind her decisions not out of regional loyalty, but out of respect and admiration for the incredible work she has done in advocating for indigenous peoples across the country. Just as we trust the leaders of our national organizations, such as NCAI, to represent the concerns of all and not just their own tribes, we trust that the eligibility decisions made by the Assistant Secretary are based in sound legal and practical reasoning, not regional favoritism.

When it comes to the CARES Act and which organizations are included, it was Congress who made the decision. Assistant Secretary Sweeney is simply following the law as she is mandated to do by Congress and her position of trust.

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The CARES Act is unambiguous: Alaska Native villages, Alaska Native regional corporations, and Alaska Native village corporations are “tribes” under the law.

The legal issue disputed by NCAI is the definition of “tribal governments.” Section 601(g) of the act, which outlines definitions, provides the answer. Paragraph (1) states: “the term “Indian Tribe” has the meaning given that term in section 4(e) of the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act (25 USC 5304(e)).”

Following the citation, the referenced section of the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act defines “Indian tribe” as follows: “any Indian tribe, band, nation, or other organized group or community, including any Alaska Native village OR regional OR village corporation as defined in or established pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (43 USC 1601 et. seq.) which is recognized as eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United states to Indians because of their status as Indians.”

The law is clear. Our legal mandate as Alaska Native corporations is to support our Alaska Native communities and shareholders economically, culturally and socially.

There is no question that we are facing a seminal health crisis that threatens not only Indian Country, but also the world. It’s time for us to stand and work together to fight COVID-19 and repair and grow our economies, not only for Indian Country, but also for the benefit of our great country.

Strength comes from standing together. When Indian Country, Alaska Native corporations and tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations align as one, our ability to serve our people is powerful. When we publicly bicker and attack a long-time tribal advocate in a time of crisis, the benefit comes not to our tribes and our people, but to those who oppose our traditions, self-determination and economic opportunity.

We stand with you, Tara. Thank you for your service.

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