The essence of tribal nations includes sovereignty

Ernest L. Stevens, Jr.


Working hard to serve Indian Country in this public health emergency and economic crisis

Ernest L. Stevens, Jr.

Chairman, National Indian Gaming Association

At the National Indian Gaming Association, we have been working very hard to serve our member tribes in this difficult time of the National COVID-19 Public Health Emergency and Economic Crisis.

In March, we successfully fought for the tribal government set-aside in the CARES Act, together with the National Congress of American Indians and our regional Indian organizations. We had requested that the $8 Billion Tribal Set-Aside under the CARES Act’s State-Local-Tribal Government Coronavirus Relief Fund was going to provide for Lost Revenue, as it did when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced her bill. In the early hours of the morning before the Senate voted on the CARES Act, Treasury insisted that the language be changed to “unbudgeted expenditures” necessary to deal with the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency during the period from March 1 to December 31, 2020.

The Tribal Set-Aside is, of course, extremely important and Indian nations consulted with Treasury and BIA for two weeks to develop a fair and equitable distribution formula for the tribal government set-aside 

Naturally, the National Indian Gaming Association supports our Alaska Native villages, which are federally recognized Indian tribes possessing inherent rights of sovereignty, self-determination, and self-government. 

President Clinton’s assistant secretary of Indian affairs recognized the real tribes of Alaska — Alaska Native villages. In accord with Clinton’s government-to-government relations policy, Alaska Native villages were recognized as Indian tribes on the Federally Recognized Indian tribe list.

As Treasury and BIA consultation on the CARES Act State-Local-Tribal CRF set-aside was ended, however, Tribal Governments were surprised and alarmed when BIA, under the leadership of the former vice president of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, (“ASRC”) worked to divert COVID 19 relief specifically set aside for tribal governments to Alaska Native Corporations, which are state chartered, for-profit corporations such as ASRC. 

Assistant Secretary Sweeney maintains a financial interest in ASRC as an ASRC shareholder. As our National Indian Gaming Association Board and member tribes sounded alarms, we sprang into action to strongly oppose this radical change in federal law and policy.

The Creator blessed our Native peoples with life and liberty, and our long ago grandmothers and grandfathers formed our nations to protect our lives and liberty, to protect our traditions and ways of life. 

The very essence of Indian nations and tribes is Indian sovereignty, animated by the will of our Native people. Tribal Governments run on inherent Indian sovereignty, self-determination and self-government, which is entirely distinct from Alaska Native corporations which have no inherent rights because they are creatures of statute chartered under the law of the State of Alaska. The National Indian Gaming Association and our member tribes have joined with NCAI and our regional Indian organizations in opposing the wrongful effort to divert funds from tribal governments to the corporations joined the amicus brief in the D.C. litigation to stop Treasury from diverting funds that Congress intended for Tribal Governments.

We have also been fighting with all of our hearts for our small tribal gaming operations. The SBA Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) is very important to our small Indian gaming operations with less than 500 employees to help keep our tribal workforce healthy, employed, safe and sound as part of our tribal communities. We worked with many long-time congressional friends and supporters, and Congress understood our point—The CARES Act is meant to respond to the National Emergency and Economic Crisis. The SBA acted outside of its authority and declared that any business with 33 percent or more legal gambling revenue would be ineligible for PPP even though the CARES Act included “any” tribal government business concern in the expanded statutory eligibility rule.

We appreciated the bi-cameral, bi-partisan congressional full court press urging Treasury and SBA to issue supplemental guidance to make it clear that small tribal gaming facilities with less than 500 employees are eligible for the PPP. SBA said,

Are businesses that receive revenue from legal gaming eligible for a PPP Loan? A business that is otherwise eligible for a PPP Loan is not rendered ineligible due to its receipt of legal gaming revenues, and 13 CFR 120.110(g) is inapplicable to PPP loans…. On further consideration, the Administrator, in consultation with the Secretary, believes this approach is more consistent with the policy aim of making PPP loans available to a broad segment of U.S. businesses.

Issued late last week, SBA’s supplemental guidance will provide much needed financial relief to tribal gaming facilities with less than 500 employees, which face dire economic challenges due to the pandemic.

We encourage all of our Indian nations and tribes with small tribal gaming operations to immediately apply for an SBA PPP forgivable loan when the program re-opens Monday morning, April 27th. We need to protect our employees and our tribal gaming businesses, so we can re-open when the COVID-19 “shelter in place” policies ease.

The National Indian Gaming Association would like to thank our member tribes for working closely with us to get the SBA PPP regulations changed to provide relief for tribal gaming facilities with less than 500 employees. We also want to thank our many friends in the Senate and House who helped make this happen!

As we move forward, our American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments must be vigilant in protecting our people, and we must do so with good minds and good hearts, so that we honor our grandmothers and grandfathers who faced may difficult struggles with public health and economic crises in the time before time. So too must we chart the way for our tribal youth so that they may know the importance of the sunrise and the new day!

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Ernie Stevens, Jr. is the chairman and national spokesperson for the National Indian Gaming Association in Washington, D.C. Stevens is currently in his ninth two-year term as the organization’s leader, which is a position elected by the member tribes of the National Indian Gaming Association.