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Supreme Court upholds that Alaska Native corporations count as Tribes, may receive CARES Act funding

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Friday  that Alaska Native regional and village corporations are eligileribaltfor federal CARES Act funding intended for Tribes.

At stake is about a half-billion dollars that the Treasury Department was going to distribute to Alaska Native corporations until several Tribes filed lawsuits. 

The Tribes argued that Alaska’s for-profit Native corporations aren’t Tribes and should not get a share of the $8 billion coronavirus relief fund that Congress reserved for Tribal governments.

The 6-3 decision was written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. 

(Editor's note: This story was updated at 4:39 p.m. Friday, June 28, 2021, to add additional material.)

Mike Williams read it with dismay. He is the senior chief of the Akiak Tribe, in Western Alaska. 

“I'm definitely disappointed but continuously being hopeful and we'll continue to fight to protect our Tribal sovereignty period.”

For Williams and Tribal leaders in the Lower 48, the case is emotional. The Tribes feel that the Alaskan Native corporations are trying to horn in on their status as sovereign governments.

“But it wasn't about the ANCs horning in on anything.” Attorney Lloyd Miller, an advocate of Tribal sovereignty, says the case is only about how the term “Tribe” is defined for limited purposes. “It was whether members of Congress intended to include the ANCs in this pool of money. And the court’s conclusion was that members of Congress did intend that.”

Here’s how the CARES Act defines Tribe. It says Tribe has the same meaning it does in an older law, the Indian Self-Determination Act. ISDA is the 1975 law that allows Tribes to contract with the U.S. government to provide services that used to be done by federal agencies.

Had the case gone the other way, the corporations say it could have upset long-standing health care and housing programs. Consider Doyon, the Native corporation for the Interior. Under ISDA, Doyon is a Tribe for purposes of receiving Native American housing allocations, which it passes on to the Interior Regional Housing Authority. 

“Especially in urban Alaska, Anchorage and Fairbanks in particular, this case had the potential to disrupt that provision of services," said Doyon CEO Aaron Schutt. "That was the important issue from the start.”

Alaska’s urban areas have a lot of Native residents, but Schutt says the local Tribes were often decimated so the corporations play an important role.

“The history of Fairbanks is, is one of those areas where there's no federally recognized Tribe, because the last big pandemic 100 years ago, pretty much killed all the native people in the Fairbanks-North Star borough. So the history is tied together.”

The biggest ANC service provider is Cook Inlet Region Inc. It founded the non-profit Southcentral Foundation, which partners with Tribal organizations to run the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage.

None of the 12 regional ANCs or the 174 village corporations know exactly how much it will get of the $8 billion Tribal CARES Act fund, although collectively it totals about a half-billion dollars.

Schutt says they’ve asked, but Treasury hasn’t produced a number.

“As we sit here today, knowing we've now won the case, we still only have six months to deploy money. We don't know how much it is. So that's going to be a challenge.”

Schutt says another looming challenge is to heal the rift this case has created between the Tribes and Alaska Native Corporations.

Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media

Original post: (10:30 a.m. Friday, June 28, 2021)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today (Friday, June 25) that Alaska Native regional and village corporations are eligible to receive federal CARES Act funding.

The 6 -3 decision in Yellen v. Confederated Tribes of Chehalis Reservation is the result of more than a year of court cases between many Tribes, the Native corporations and the federal government.

Those opposed argued that the corporations were not Tribal governments as laid out in language in the CARES Act. Three Alaska Native Tribes were also in opposition of corporations getting the funding.

Alaska Native corporations argued that Alaska’s unique history and the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act determined that -- the corporations could be treated as Tribes and they could apply for and receive federal funding.

A joint statement by the ANCSA Regional Association and the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association said -- they applauded “the Supreme Court’s decision to ensure the federal government honors its promises to Alaska Natives and the communities we represent.”

~ Tripp J Crouse, KNBA

Editor's note: This story was updated to include the name of the case. (10:54 a.m. Friday, June 25, 2021 )

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