The $2 trillion federal coronavirus relief package called the CARES Act sets aside $8 billion in a tribal stabilization fund. But with the April 26 disbursement deadline looming, tribal leaders fear that nearly half of that aid could be diverted away from tribal governments and toward Alaska Native Corporations.
Gerald Gray, Chairman of the Littleshell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, has been spending a lot of time on conference calls about the issue.
"It's a lot of discussion about that funding that hasn't come out that's supposed to be coming down the pipe," he said. "It gets frustrating because it's just like, how many more calls do we need to have before something actually gets sent out to the tribes?"
Gray also chairs the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, which represents 11 tribes in our region whose economies are hurting. Casinos are closed. Oil revenue has taken a nosedive. Many tribes have had to furlough employees or make cuts to vital social services when they're most needed.
Federal dollars will make a difference for all 574 federally recognized tribes. But the fine print of the CARES Act says Alaska Native Corporations are eligible for a piece of the $8 billion pie.
"The Alaska Native corporations should not be getting any of the funding because they're not tribes," Gray said.
Alaska Native Corporations, or ANCs, were formed by Congress in the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Today they are among the top revenue-grossing businesses in Alaska, and their shareholders are Indigenous Alaskans.
Every major tribal organization in the lower 48 agrees with Gray that ANCs should be excluded. More than a dozen tribes are even suing the Trump administration over the controversy.
All this has stirred up anger, distrust, and above all confusion in Indian Country. Paul Ongtooguk is not surprised.
"Well, people are confused about everything concerning status as Alaska Natives," Ongtooguk said.
A professor of Alaska Native Studies with the University of Alaska Anchorage, Ongtooguk said this debate is rooted in a history that most Americans aren't familiar with.
In the 1960s, tribal nations were taking the feds to court over treaty provisions-things like their hunting and fishing rights-and they were winning. Congress was frustrated. It wanted its relationship with Natives in the brand new state of Alaska to be different.
"The alternative became creating state chartered private corporations in which all the shareholders would be Alaska Natives," Ongtooguk said.
There would still be tribes in Alaska, but no reservations. Instead, they would turn their land over to ANCs, which would manage it, make money off of it, and provide for Indigenous Alaskans. Without treaties, the federal government would be off the hook.
With modifications, that system is still in place today. Ongtooguk said one big advantage is how ANCs have banded together to lobby state and federal leaders on behalf of Alaska Natives.
"If you don't have a coherent voice, then you don't get a greater voice in how Congress distributes funding," Ongtooguk said. "So, on that level, the problem is not what the Alaska Native organizations are doing, the problem is what tribal governments have not done."
But for leaders like Chairman Gray of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, the influence ANCs have is exactly the problem.
"The corporations up there have a lot of money. So of course they're going to have a lot of influence," Gray said, adding that tribes shouldn't have to lobby the government for help and provisions already already promised to them in treaties.
Gray also pointed out that Alaska's 229 federally recognized tribes could be eligible for funding in addition to the ANCs that represent them .
"It doesn't make sense. I mean, that's double dipping," Gray said.
However, the department of the Treasury has stated that it will work to account for any such overlap when disbursing funds from the CARES Act to Alaska Native tribes and corporations.
ANC leaders are standing their ground. President Shauna Hegna of Koniag Incorporated said the most efficient way to get the aid to Alaska Natives is through ANCs.
"Alaska Native Corporations are eligible for funding under the CARES Act because they're included in the law. And we're going to use the funding to help our communities prepare and respond to COVID-19," Hegna said.
The deadline for amending the CARES Act has come and gone. What's left is to see how much of the $8 billion ANCs receive. For many Alaska Natives, the big question is whether these for-profit corporations that are used to investing money will do a good job distributing it to local programs and services.
For tribal nations, it's whether the aid they receive will be enough to keep them afloat.
Meanwhile, the $8 billion at the center of this fight is less than half a percent of the total relief package. To many tribal leaders, that wasn't enough to begin with. Professor Ongtogook points out that fighting over it will not make the pot of money grow.
"I understand. I mean [Alaska Natives] were shooting each other over territorial tribal rights up until the 1930s. And by 1966, we overcame that history and formed a statewide organization," Ongtooguk said. "Because as we understood it, you don't fight for the furniture when somebody's burning down your house."
What's clear is that neither system-ANCs in Alaska or treaties and reservations in the lower 48-was designed to help Indigenous people survive a crisis.
Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at email@example.com.
Savannah is a Report For America corps member.