Tribes Balk at Inclusion of Alaska Native Corporations in Virus-Relief Fund

This Sept. 2, 2015, file aerial image shows the island village of Kivalina, an Alaska Native community of 400 people. (AP file photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Six tribes brought a federal complaint Friday to stop the Trump administration from letting 230 construction companies, military contractors and other for-profit entities in Alaska collect from the $8 billion coronavirus-relief fund meant exclusively for tribal governments.

Known as ANCs, or Alaska Native corporations and villages, these private business corporations “are state-chartered and state-regulated private business corporations,” the complaint states, quoting the 1998 Supreme Court ruling Alaska v. Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government.

Noting that they “conduct business worldwide through dozens of subsidiaries,” the tribes say ANCs are not tribal governments and are thus ineligible to receive Title V funds under the CARES Act.

Title V of the $2.2 trillion package whose full name is the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act laid aside $8 billion for tribes in the fiscal year 2020, apart from the $150 billion meant for state, local and tribal governments.

The tribes that filed suit Friday are represented by the firm Kanji & Katzen, which has offices in Seattle and Ann Arbor, Michigan. Three of the plaintiff tribes — the Chehalis, Tulalip, and the Houlton Band — are from the Lower 48. They are joined by three tribes from Alaska, the Akiak, Asa’carsarmiut and Aleut Community of St. Paul Island.

In the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is overseen by Tara Sweeney, who is the first Alaska Native to hold the position. The agency released a statement Thursday rejecting the insinuation that Sweeney “has personal motives or that she is attempting to divert funds away from American Indians.”

“Her approach has always been focused on inclusiveness, transparency and partnerships,” an unnamed spokesperson said. “It is unfortunate that during a time all should be united, there are those who are seeking to divide the American Indian and Alaska Native community and are suggesting to ignore the mandate of Congress and exclude eligible entities as defined by law.”

Representatives for Interior and the Treasury Department did not respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit.

Friday’s complaint says double-dipping is a concern “because some ANCs are closely affiliated with federally recognized Alaska Native villages, and many corporate shareholders are tribal members.”

Citing “their more modest population, land base, and economic size,” the tribes say their share of the relief fund would be considerably less if forced to split with ANCs, whose 12 regional entities alone generated “more than $10.5 billion in revenues in 2018.”

 “Congress is clear that Title V relief funds are to supplement ‘government’ budgets, not corporate coffers,” the complaint states.

As Native Americans suffer disproportionately from high rates of diabetes, cancer, heart disease and asthma — conditions shown to make contracting the novel coronavirus fatal — the tribes say money from the CARES Act is needed desperately by the 574 federally recognized tribes.

Members of an Arizona National Guard unit load up a Black Hawk helicopter to deliver medical supplies to the remote Navajo Nation town of Kayenta due to the coronavirus in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

“By way of just a few examples, as of April 15, 2020, the Navajo Nation alone has reported 921 cases and 38 deaths related to Covid-19,” the complaint states. “The Pueblo of Zuni has reported 33 cases. And the Cherokee Nation has reported 28 cases with one fatality as of April 9.”

The tribes stress that emergency services rolled out in response to the highly contagious disease — including new care clinics, increased testing and meal delivery — have placed “tremendous financial strain” on their budgets and operations. 

Revenue “evaporated overnight,” the complaint states, as the tribal governments ordered casinos, hotels and gas stations to close to slow the pandemic’s spread. 

“Plaintiffs are in dire need of these funds to cover the governmental costs resulting from the increased and necessary expenditures associated with the Covid-19 pandemic,” the complaint states.

For the Asa’carsarmiut Tribe, the ability to maintain sanitary conditions is at risk with no airline service available to bring in cleaning products. The tribe’s small gaming site has been closed, drying up any chance of raising much needed funds. 

The Aleut Community of Saint Paul Island is also facing cuts to supply chains after the fishing market collapsed, leaving two-thirds of the 1,554-member tribe out of a job in the isolated community located in the middle of the Bering Sea in Alaska. 

“In the past four weeks, due to COVID-19 the community has lost its only passenger airline to bankruptcy, leaving ACSPI isolated and without any means of reaching the 800-mile distant Alaska mainland for necessary health care and other critical needs,” the complaint states.

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