A U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C. has ruled that Alaska Native corporations are eligible to receive part of the $8 billion Congress set aside to help tribes respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Judge Amit Mehta initially agreed with a coalition of tribes that tried to stop the payments. They argued that the corporations did not qualify for the money because they are for-profit corporations, not self-governing tribes. But, after hearing the case, Mehta decided Friday that “ANCs are ‘Indian Tribes,’ and that their boards of directors are ‘Tribal governments, for purposes of the [CARES] Act.”
The case highlights the unique position of Alaska Native corporations, entities created by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Congress charged them with making profits for their shareholders, but also with improving social and cultural well-being of Alaska Native people.
In the CARES Act, Congress allocated $8 billion to tribes and referred to previous laws to define what a tribe is.
The Treasury Department decided the definition included Alaska Native corporations. It developed a formula to distribute the money based in part on population, budget and on how many employees a tribe or corporation has.
The corporations say they serve some of the same purposes as Lower 48 tribes. Collectively, they’ve pledged more than $2 million to food security, protective equipment and other initiatives to help their communities cope with the pandemic.
“This disaster assistance will provide immediate support to Alaska’s rural communities suffering from COVID-19 and help repair the economic damage caused by the pandemic,” said Kim Reitmeier, executive director of the ANCSA Regional Association, which represents Alaska’s 12 regional corporations.
The decision is a blow to tribes leery of any delegation of their self-governance powers. Three Alaska tribes were among the plaintiffs in the case: the Akiak Native Community, Asa’carsarmiut Tribe of Mountain Village and the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island.
Alaska Federation of Natives celebrated the decision. In an emailed statement, AFN attributed the dispute to worry among “Lower 48 tribes and national tribal organizations” that including the corporations would “result in a windfall to Alaska Native peoples.”
AFN’s membership includes corporations and tribes. That duality was evident in its response to the decision.
“AFN understands that the powers of tribal self-governance rest exclusively with Alaska tribes,” the organization’s statement reads. “Only Alaska tribes have the power to govern their members. This inherent right is an attribute of tribal sovereignty.”