A group of Native American tribes are suing the U.S. Treasury Department for failing to distribute the $8 billion mandated in the coronavirus stimulus package signed into law in March. The $2.2 trillion CARES Act set mandated the money be sent to tribes by the end of April, but many leaders said the funds have not been received. At the heart of the issue is a dispute between the tribes and Alaska Native corporations, a group of for-profit businesses that serve some of Alaska's tribal villages.
The Alaska Native corporations argue they should have access to the coronavirus relief, while the federally recognized tribal governments in the contiguous U.S. disagree, reports the New York Times. President Donald Trump's administration sided with the Alaska Native corporations, leading to dozens of lawsuits filed in the past month disputing the Treasury Department's decision to let the companies apply for the aid. They argue the corporations do not qualify as tribal governments.
On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Amit P. Mehta ruled in favor of the tribal governments, ordering all funds earmarked for the Alaska Native corporations be postponed as the litigation continues. On Friday, the Treasury Department claimed it has not decided on where any of the money is going. Tribal leaders and activists said a ruling in the case will ultimately decide where the $8 billion and future stimulus funds are distributed. They also fear that some of the aid will stay frozen.
"I just honestly thought this was the kind of treatment we would still only read about in the history books," Chuck Hoskin Jr., the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, told the Times. "It's Indian Country unnecessarily having to move heaven and earth to defend itself and to keep from losing ground."
Those who drafted the CARES package said the tribal aide was originally intended only to go to tribal governments recognized in the Constitution. However, the situation with the 200 Alaska Native Corporations, established in 1971 to manage the the land from the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, has complicated the issue. The state's congressional delegation has argued the corporations should have access to the funds and the corporations' representatives said they were disappointed by Mehta's ruling.
On April 22, U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young published an op-ed in the Anchorage Daily News defending the Alaska Native Corporations. "The relief fund is not meant to offset ANCs' corporate losses, just as it is not meant to offset gaming losses that may be incurred by Lower 48 tribally owned casinos. To the extent ANCs make expenditures to respond to the public health emergency, it is only fair they be able to access relief funds," the three wrote.
There has also been allegations of a conflict of interest in the decision to allow the Alaska Native corporations access to the funds. Tara Sweeney, the first Alaska Native to serve as the assistant secretary for Indian affairs in the Department of Interior, was previously an executive at one of the corporations. A Department of the Interior spokesman told the Times it is "completely false" and Sweeney is "committed" to serving all Native Americans.