U.S. officials, tribal leaders clash over Alaska Native corporation emergency funding

Arctic Alaska tribes and corporations could see an influx of funding for their coronavirus response — but leaders disagree on who it should be distributed to.

By Melody Schreiber, Yereth Rosen - April 19, 2020
Tara Sweeney, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of Interior, spoke at an event on Capitol Hill on Feb. 13, 2020. (Melody Schreiber)

Congress has earmarked $8 billion in rescue funding for Native American and Alaska Native tribes, which have been among the groups hardest-hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

But some U.S. officials and Native American groups have disagreed over how to disburse funds to Alaska Natives.

The Trump administration is planning to include Alaska Native corporations in disbursing funds set aside for tribes during the pandemic under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Tara Sweeney, the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of Interior (and the first Alaska Native person to hold that position), has advised the Treasury Department on disbursing the funds.

Sweeney also chaired the Arctic Economic Council during the period when U.S. held the Arctic Council chair.

But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, has called into question Sweeney’s involvement in the Treasury Department’s plans.

Sweeney is a former lobbyist and top executive for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, one of the entities that could receive billions in the deal.

The two officials took their disagreement to Twitter on Thursday. Schumer tweeted, “Sweeney used to be an exec for an ANC [Alaska Native corporation], and she wants to profit!”

Sweeney replied that his remarks were “an ignorant and despicably low attack.”

The funding package passed by Congress included $8 billion for “Indian tribes,” a phrase that proponents argue includes Alaska Native corporations.

However, some tribal leaders in Alaska agree that Alaska Native corporations should not qualify for the funds.

Mike Williams Sr., a leader of the Akiak Native Community, said there’s an important difference between tribes and corporations.

In this case, “the big difference is that $8 billion was set aside for tribal governments,” he said. “We weren’t expecting the Alaska Native corporations to be part of that $8 billion, which would amount to a lot of money for Native corporations.”

Williams said the COVID-19 crisis has put a severe strain on the Akiak tribal government. The tribe is the provider of health care for its members and provides other essential services.

“Our village corporations and our regional corporations are trying to make a profit,” he said.

He said he has nothing against the corporations — he is a shareholder in both his village corporation and his regional corporation — but that they have different missions.

The Akiak Native Community ensures health care for its members and other essential services, he said. “We are government.”

Alaska Native corporations should be allowed to receive assistance, Williams said, but “from other parts of the relief fund, just like private for-profit corporations.”

The corporations may also be able to tap into federal funds for small businesses, which tribal governments cannot access.

“We have to keep the two separate so that we can have really good accounting,” Williams said.

Alaska Native corporations and Alaska Native tribes can be confused, but they are independent of each other and serve different purposes.

The corporations, created by the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, are for-profit entities that own land, mineral resources and other assets, and their function is economic.

Alaska Native tribes are federally recognized sovereign governments.

Although both serve a mostly overlapping group of people, Alaska Native tribes and corporations have clashed at times, particularly over issues like Arctic oil development.

The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation owns mineral rights and is heavily invested in oil development, while some tribal governments have characterized the oil development that ASRC backs as a threat to tribal values.

Sen. Tom Udall, the top Democrat on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, has objected that the federal emergency funds were “intended for Tribal governments and should not be diverted.”

In a statement, Alaska’s congressional delegation, all Republicans, slammed Sweeney’s critics, such as Schumer, for their “slanderous accusations” against her, and they defended the rights of Alaska Native corporations to access the funds.

The politicians now objecting to the funding had previously “signed off on the standard, 40 plus-year-old definition of Indian tribes, which includes Alaska Native village and regional corporations,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, who called the objections an attempt “to deprive Alaska Native communities (of) much-needed funds to fight the pandemic.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the criticisms “betray an utter lack of understanding of what Native Corporations are, why Congress created them, and the purpose they serve in Alaska.”

A spokesperson for Murkowski told ArcticToday that any entity meeting the definition of “Indian tribe” in the Indian Self-Determination Education Assistance Act qualifies for the emergency funding — which includes both Alaska Native tribes and corporations.

The Treasury Department “will be issuing guidance on how the distributions will be determined” in consultation with the Secretary of the Interior and Indian tribes, she said.

Some of the Native American leaders to be consulted have objected to sharing the relief funds. Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. has said that “it feels like a robbery happening in broad daylight.”

The National Congress of American Indians criticized Sweeney and said this deal unfairly counts Alaska Natives three times — as “tribal members, Village Corporate shareholders, and Regional Corporate shareholders.”

The Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer opposed the inclusion of corporations, writing in a letter on Thursday that “Alaska Native Corporations are for-profit entities that have billions of dollars in revenue, and can access other funding sources in the CARES Act.”

Earlier this week, the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association called for Sweeney’s removal from her position.

Several tribes, including three Alaska Native tribal governments, filed a lawsuit on Friday to challenge the inclusion of corporations.

The plaintiffs asserted in the suit that the 574 federally recognized Indian tribes — including more than 200 Alaska Native villages — “maintain a government-to-government relationship with the United States.”

But the list of recognized tribes does not include any Alaska Native regional or village corporations.

Because ANCs are not “recognized as eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to Indians because of their status as Indians,” they are not “Indian Tribes” — and therefore not tribal governments — when it comes to the CARES Act, the plaintiffs argued.

The deadline for tribal governments to submit information for relief through the CARES Act was midnight on Friday.

However, some tribes reportedly had trouble verifying that their information was uploaded in time.

Others said sensitive information uploaded to the portal had been leaked, with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe demanding an investigation into the leaks.