Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Oppose CARES Act Funding For Alaska Native Corporations

Apr 17, 2020

U.S. Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney.
Credit Jared King (Navajo Nation Washington Office) / Flickr Creative Commons

The massive federal relief package called the CARES Act includes an $8 billion tribal stabilization fund, meant to keep tribal governments afloat amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But the fine print of the law entitles Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) to a slice of that fund as well.

The Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council (RMTLC), which represents 11 tribes in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, joined nearly every other major tribal organization this week in calling for ANCs to be excluded.

"[Alaska Native Corporations] established pursuant to [ the Alaska Native Claims and Settlement Act ] are business corporations established under state law," RMTLC Chairman Gerald Gray wrote in a letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. "As such, these corporations do not have a government-to-government relationship with the federal government and do not serve as 'governing bodies' of Tribes."

Credit Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council

Alaska is home to 229 federally recognized tribes, which are served by more than 100 village-level and 13 regional-level Alaska Native Corporations. Gray said that the latter two groups should be treated like any other for-profit corporation under the CARES Act.

"It doesn't make sense," Gray said in an interview. "You're basically going to end up giving Alaska [tribes] money, and then giving their corporations money. That's double dipping."

Gray, who is also Chairman of the Littleshell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, added that unlike ANCs, tribal businesses in the lower 48 will not benefit from the $8 billion dollar fund.

"The Littleshell, we have an LLC. Should it get money too?" Gray said. "There's a lot of spin-off corporations that tribes own for economic development. And this opens that can of worms."

Both Wind River Tribes are members of the RMTLC, but have not released their own statements. In interviews this week, a member of the Northern Arapaho Business Council said the council did not have a stance on the matter and a member of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council declined to comment.

Meanwhile six tribal nations, including three federally recognized tribes in Alaska, announced Friday they are suing the Trump administration to prevent Alaska Native Corporations from cashing in on the tribal stabilization fund.

"We absolutely support the essential role [Alaska Native Corporations] play in many Alaska Native communities," President Amos Philemonoff of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island wrote in a letter to Alaska's congressional delegation. "However as a self-governing tribe that has for decades dedicated resources to fighting against the erosion of Alaska Native tribal sovereignty, we cannot support the inclusion of [Alaska Native Corporations] into the blurred and rushed definition of 'tribal governments' under the CARES Act.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney has come under fire for recommending that $3 billion of the $8 billion fund be allocated to ANCs. Many tribal leaders, including Gray, have called for Sweeney to recuse herself from the process since she previously worked for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation for nearly two decades. Others, including 16 members of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Association, have called for Sweeney to be removed from office.

But Alaska Native Corporations are standing their ground. Shauna Hegna, President of the Koniag Regional Corporation headquartered in Kodiak, Alaska, said excluding Alaska Native Corporations from tribal funding would violate the guidelines set out in the CARES Act.

"Simply put, Alaska Native Corporations are eligible for funding under the CARES Act because we're included in the law," Hegna said. "And we're going to use the funding from the CARES Act to help our communities prepare and respond to COVID-19."

Hegna also defended Secretary Sweeney.

"We stand behind her decisions not out of some sense of regional loyalty or bias but out of respect for an incredible Alaska Native woman who has dedicated her life to advocating for Indigenous peoples across this country," Hegna said.

Hegna was among four Alaska Native Corporation leaders who released a letter this week supporting Secretary Sweeney.

In a statement Thursday, the Department of the Interior said the letter of the CARES Act requires that Alaska Native Corporations receive funding from the tribal stabilization fund

"[Secretary Sweeney] has always been focused on inclusiveness, transparency and partnerships," A department spokesperson wrote on Thursday. "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."

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at smaher4@uwyo.edu.