ST. PAUL — The Trump Administration is standing its ground, asserting billions in federal coronavirus aid meant for Native American tribes can be delegated to Alaska Native Corporations (ANC), despite a legal outcry from tribes in the lower 48.
As part of Congress’s sweeping Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in March, $8 billion in federal aid is meant to go to Native American tribes to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The White House has said that “Indian tribe,” as written in the law, can include ANCs, which are for-profit corporations with Alaska Native shareholders.
South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Sioux, Rosebud Sioux and Oglala Sioux Tribes on Wednesday, April 22 filed an injunction in federal court against U.S. Dept. of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, whose department ultimately delegates the aid, arguing that the $8 billion sum should go to tribal governments carrying out social services, not ANCs.
In court documents filed Thursday, Mnuchin retorted that Congress “expressly chose to include ANCs” in its definition of “Indian tribe” in the CARES Act.”
In a Wednesday, April 22, statement, Harold Frazier, the chair of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in north-central South Dakota, said Alaskan Natives account for a small minority of all Native Americans, and the CARES Act as written gives them an unfair advantage.
“Alaska Native Corporations constitute a minority of the indigenous population in the United States. Alaska Native Corporations are NOT tribes,” he said. “They should NOT reap the benefits of the CARES Act in such a substantial way.”
In an April 16 letter to Mnuchin, 12 U.S. representatives — including all four Native U.S. representatives in office, as well as Minnesota’s U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum — said “the spirit and language” of the CARES Act is to allocate the $8 billion to tribal governments, not ANCs.
“Any attempt to divert funds provided under the (Coronavirus Relief Fund) away from the governing bodies of federally recognized tribal nations, which include Alaska Native Villages, would clearly be contrary to congressional intent,” they wrote.
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., agrees: On Thursday, she tweeted that the Treasury Department’s interpretation of the law “betrays Congressional intent & betrays Tribal nations.”
Alaska’s Congressional delegation in an April 16 statement came to bat for ANCs, as did Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, who is an Alaska Native shareholder by birthwright. Frazier has said in statements that Sweeney’s recommended allocations to ANCs are “grossly unfair," and the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association has called for her removal from office, saying she "has lost the confidence of Indian tribes."
U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said “the time to express concerns” over the CARES Act language was before its overwhelming passage, not now, and that he is “confident that our federal agencies will determine a fair and equitable distribution of these critical funds.”