Indianz.Com Video: An Interview with Jonathan Nez and Chuck Hoskin Jr.

'A robbery happening in broad daylight': Indian Country in revolt over $8 billion coronavirus fund

Furor is growing among Indian nations in the lower 48 as the Trump administration refuses to change course on what the leader of one of the largest tribes in the United States calls a "robbery happening in broad daylight."

With just one day left for tribes to submit critical information to receive a share of a much-needed $8 billion relief fund, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney remains startlingly silent on the controversy. During a coronavirus conference call on Wednesday, she refused to take questions from the 1,000-plus who were on the line, according to people who participated.

Sweeney's second-in-command even warned tribal leaders not to bring up any concerns about the $8 billion fund. They were essentially told that the matter -- whether Native corporations in Alaska are entitled to a share of the huge chunk of money -- was settled.

"That consultation period ended," Mark Cruz, a citizen of the Klamath Tribes who serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Economic Development, said on the call, according to participants.

The hands-off approach from official Washington has tribal leaders extremely troubled. They are calling on Sweeney, who is a former executive at the wealthiest Native corporation in Alaska, and the Trump administration to live up to the government's trust and treaty responsibilities and ensure that the $8 billion goes to governments, not corporate entities.

"I'm at a loss to see it from their point of view," Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. told Indianz.Com on Wednesday.

"I've not seen anyone lay out a defense of this in any comprehensive manner," Hoskin asserted.

Amid a slew of requests for "meaningful" government-to-government talks from all corners of Indian Country, Hoskin believes neither the Department of the Interior, nor the Department of the Treasury,, have explained why they believe corporations that are organized under state law are entitled to be treated in the same manner as tribal nations, whose existence pre-dates the U.S. Constitution. He noted that the issue only became known widely on Friday -- a day after the last consultation call on the the $8 billion fund took place and only three days before the close of the comment period.

"The fact is that it feels like a robbery happening in broad daylight," Hoskin said, "with Alaska Native corporations poised to take funds that are meant for Indian Country tribal government operations, to extend us a lifeline."

"It's wrong," the leader of one of the two largest tribes in the U.S. said in the interview. "It's not just and I think that tribes across the country are going to do everything we can to get justice."

Doing everything includes going to court. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe -- whose leadership has joined others 15 others in the Great Plains region in calling for Sweeney to step down over the controversy -- is preparing to sue the Trump administration should Alaska Native corporations receive a share of the $8 billion coronavirus relief fund.

"ANCs are for-profits incorporated under state law and the lands are fee lands subject to state jurisdiction and state taxing authority," Chairman Harold Frazier said on behalf of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Association in a letter to the two members of President Donald Trump's Cabinet who are ultimately accountable for the money -- Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin.

"To include these entities and these lands in the Coronavirus Relief Fund would strip hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars from federally-recognized Tribal governments with federally-recognized reservations in the lower 48 states of money we need to save our people from COVID-19," Frazier continued.

The Cherokee Nation is also considering a lawsuit, Hoskin told Indianz.Com. He's even brought up potential litigation before the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes, whose well-connected leaders are among those pushing the Trump administration to change course on the distribution of the $8 billion.

"I certainly am prepared to take legal action," Hoskin said.

The leader of the other largest tribe in the U.S. is also speaking out. President Jonathan Nez, whose citizens in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah are being hit the hardest by the coronavirus, said the Navajo Nation "strongly opposes" the inclusion of Alaska Native corporations in the $8 billion fund.

"The Congressional intent of these funds were to relieve tribal governments,"
Nez said on Thursday, as he continues to remain in self-quarantine, a step he is taking after coming into contact with an emergency medical technician who has tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. "We need provided relief for our tribal communities, not shareholders. We demand answers from the Department of the Interior and the Department of the Treasury on how they are upholding their trust responsibility to federally-recognized tribes by considering this action."

"The $8 billion tribal set-aside should provide much-needed relief to tribes, not for-profit corporations. These for-profit corporations will take away resources from tribes,” Nez concluded.

But even though the deadline for tribes to submit "certification" forms is midnight on Friday, Hoskin said there is still time for true dialogue. Frazier is in the same camp, a spokesperson told Indianz.Com, with the Cheyenne River council only planning to go to court if the Trump administration doesn't change its mind on the Alaska Native corporation issue.

"Across Indian Country, we've raised enough of a concern that it's incumbent now upon the agency -- including the Assistant Secretary -- to reach out and engage in meaningful consultation," Hoskin said.

"There's always time for that," Hoskin added. "We can always carve out time for that."

"The money has not been disbursed," Hoskin pointed out.

The Department of the Interior has not responded to a request for comment about the steps Sweeney is taking, or has been taking, to address the issues raised in the lower 48. But with the Department of the Treasury saying eligible tribes -- including Alaska Native corporations -- will be paid "no later than April 24, 2020," some tribal leaders feel their voices have already been ignored in the nation's capital.

"This is a tough one to swallow," Toby Vanlandingham, a council member for the Yurok Tribe, said on social media on Wednesday. "ANC’s, some not even wholly owned by Alaska natives, will be taking a huge chunk of relief money earmarked for tribal governments."

"We as well as many other tribal governments continue to oppose this double dipping but so far go unheard," Vanlandingham said.

Key members of Congress are also paying attention. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York), who is the Democratic minority leader in the U.S. Senate, accused Sweeney of "diverting funds for tribal governments during coronavirus to for-profit Alaska Native Corporations."

"We can't put these corporations before tribal governments & people," Schumer said on social media on Thursday. "Sweeney used to be an exec for an ANC, and she wants to profit!"

Before President Donald Trump tapped her to serve as the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, Sweeney served as an executive vice president for Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. The firm, whose portfolio depends on the energy industry and on federal contracts, largest Native business entity in terms of revenue.

Sweeney has benefited from the corporation's economic success. According to her financial disclosure form, she earned a salary of more than $1 million in 2017 and in the early months of 2018.

On top of her salary, Sweeney participated in two additional "incentive" programs for being employed at the Alaska Native regional corporation. According to the disclosure form, she valued each payment at $250,001 to $500,000.

In order to be confirmed as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, the government official with the most responsibilities to tribes and their citizens, Sweeney two years ago promised to recuse herself from playing a role in "any" decisions that impact her former employer. When pressed about the matter by members of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, she further promised never to seek a waiver from her pledge.

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney shows a visitor some Alaska Native traditional food she keeps in her office at the Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Sweeney, though, did not pledge to give up her "inherited financial interest" in Arctic Slope though she agreed to do that for Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation, which is an Alaska Native village corporation. Regional and village corporations are eligible for the $8 billion fund, according to the Department of the Treasury. In addition to the 13 regional corporations, there are more than 200 village corporations.

Amid the fire, some Alaska Native corporation executives are standing up for Sweeney, who served among their ranks until joining the Trump administration in the summer of 2018. In a statement, they said her "abilities, intellect and desire to serve our people are unparalleled."

"When it comes to the CARES Act and which organizations are included, it was Congress who made the decision," Gail Schubert, President and Chief Executive Officer of Bering Straits Native Corporation; Sophie Minich, President and CEO of CIRI; Sheri Buretta, Chairman of the Board and Interim President and CEO of Chugach Alaska Corporation; and Shauna Hegna, President of Koniag, said in the statement.

The bipartisan Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, is the law which created the $8 billion fund.

"Assistant Secretary Sweeney is simply following the law as she is mandated to do by Congress and her position of trust," the executives added. "The CARES Act is unambiguous: Alaska Native villages, Alaska Native regional corporations, and Alaska Native village corporations are 'tribes' under the law."

But while the executives said Indian Country is stronger when "standing together," they also lashed out at the lower 48. They accused the National Congress of American Indians, whose membership excludes corporate entities organized under state law, such as those in Alaska, and other tribes of spreading "patently false" information in the media and to members of Congress.

"When we publicly bicker and attack a long-time tribal advocate in a time of crisis," the executives said in reference to Sweeney, who is Inupiat and is the first Alaska Native to serve as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, "the benefit comes not to our tribes and our people, but to those who oppose our traditions, self-determination and economic opportunity."

The Alaska Federation of Natives, the largest organization of its kind in the 49th state, also took issue with NCAI, which is the largest inter-tribal advocacy group in the entire U.S.

"Now is not the time to get into petty squabbles over resources," AFN President Julie Kitka said in a letter to Secretary Bernhardt and Secretary Mnuchin on Monday, which was the last official day to comment about the $8 billion coronavirus relief fund.

"Everyone needs help," Kitka said in a letter that bore her signature and not those of the AFN co-chairs. "Our simple request is that you just follow the law as it is written and include our Alaska Native Corporations as required by law in the distribution formula."

With the deadline to submit "certification" forms quickly approaching, some Alaska Native corporations told Indianz.Com they are eager to help their shareholders and the people they serve weather the coronavirus. Among them is CIRI, whose president joined the statement in support of Sweneey.

"CIRI will participate in any aid programs that we are legally eligible for and that benefit our corporation’s shareholders," a spokesperson said. The corporation, whose 1.3 million acres are located in the Cook Inlet Region in and around Anchorage, the most populous city in Alaska, has had to cancel critical meetings and rush out payments to more than 9,100 people during the crisis.

"CIRI is not immune from economic impacts that are a result of the COVID-19 pandemic," the spokesperson told Indianz.Com. "It is our duty to our shareholders to utilize the tools available to this corporation that mitigate any losses and protect the company’s assets for future generations."

Other corporations are taking steps to ensure tribes in their regions are aware of the Friday deadline to participate in the $8 billion fund. Calista, whose 6.5 million acres covers the the Yukon-Kuskokwim River area, is offering to submit information on their behalf.

"Calista wants to see the people of the Y-K Delta Region have the resources that are needed to protect against COVID-19," an April 13 notice states.

Another corporation told Indianz.Com that it is coordinating with the ANCSA Regional Association to ensure the public is aware of the role their entities play in the state. Collectively, the 13 Native regional corporations are responsible for the interests of 138,000 shareholders, according to the organization. They have used their revenues to further social, economic, education, health and cultural programs for their people and others in Alaska.

Leaders in the lower 48 do not dispute the large and significant role the Native corporations play in the state. But they argue that these entities are able to tap into a slew of coronavirus programs that Congress authorized and funded through the CARES Act.

"We, along with other federally-recognized tribes, aggressively advocated for tribal funding to be included in the CARES Act and now we must continue fighting to keep what was allocated for us," President Nez of the Navajo Nation said on Thursday. "Alaska Native Corporations are for-profit entities that have billions of dollars in revenue, and can access other funding sources in the CARES Act."

Chief Hoskin of the Cherokee Nation agrees with the sentiment. In calling on Assistant Secretary Sweeney to address the pleas of tribal governments, he said the path to a decision is clear.

"The right thing to do is to exclude the Alaska corporate interests," Hoskin told Indianz.Com. "Certainly they have other avenues under the larger provisions of the CARES Act to seek relief."

But as tribes await word from Sweeney, she appeared to be occupied with another subject: her own reputation. In response to Sen. Schumer's critical post, she accused him of an "arrogant and despicably low attack that could not be further from the truth."

"Perhaps you should read the law you negotiated and voted for as Alaska Natives are entitled to receive the funding from @USTreasury," Sweeney's post read.

The post was composed as hundreds more tribal leaders were waiting to hear from her on a government-wide COVID-19 call on Thursday afternoon. Despite her focus on responding in a public forum, she did not address the corporation controversy during her presentation at the beginning of the call, according to people who participated.

"Assistant Secretary Sweeney is an honorable person, and a tireless advocate for ALL Native people," a spokesperson for CIRI told Indianz.Com. "We are disappointed at the mere suggestion of impropriety on her part."

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