Indianz.Com Video: Coronavirus Response in Indian Country

Alaska Native corporations outpace tribes in race for $8 billion in coronavirus relief

By Acee Agoyo and Todd York

Alaska Native corporations were among the first in line for an $8 billion coronavirus relief fund, preliminary data obtained by Indianz.Com shows, confirming fears of tribes in the lower 48 about for-profit entities receiving a share of money promised to their governments.

Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin announced the opening of the relief fund portal on Monday afternoon. By the end of the day, nearly every Alaska Native regional corporation -- including ones with millions of acres of privately-owned fee land -- had started the "certification" process to obtain a share of COVID-19 relief money, according to the data.

And as of Friday mid-day, all 12 Alaska Native regional corporations (ANCs) with land holdings applied, the data shows. Included is Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, the wealthiest Native entity and the former employer of Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, whose role in the distribution of the $8 billion coronavirus relief fund (CRF) has led every major inter-tribal organization to call for her removal from the matter.

"Consistent with her oath to protect and preserve the public trust and uphold the United States’ treaty and trust obligations to tribal governments, as well as a promise made during her confirmation hearing, we demand that Assistant Secretary Sweeney recuse herself from any decisionmaking process regarding the CRF or related to ANCs," the organizations, whose membership represents nearly every single tribe in the lower 48, said on Thursday evening.

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, at table, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Economic Development Mark Cruz are seen at the Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

But Sweeney isn't backing down. After rebuffing key members of Congress in private meetings, defending herself during a conference call with tribal leaders and firing back at critics on social media, the Department of the Interior on Friday morning accused unnamed individuals of trying to "divide" Indian Country -- even as the tribes in the lower 48 and in Alaska joined forces and sued the Trump administration to prevent the money from landing in the hands of the Assistant Secretary's former employer and other Native corporations.

"It is unfortunate that during a time all should be united, there are those who are seeking to divide the American Indian and Alaska Native community and are suggesting to ignore the mandate of Congress and exclude eligible entities as defined by law," a statement read, without specifying the identities of "those" people accused of sowing division on one of the most controversial issues to emerge in Indian Country in nearly two decades.

Despite the heated exchanges that have gone back and forth since last Friday -- when the inclusion of the for-profit corporations first became known in the lower 48 -- tribal leaders believe the issue is a simple one. Regardless of the explanations put forth by the Department of the Interior and the Department of the Treasury, they say the $8 billion should benefit governments as intended in the bipartisan Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act.

“All we are asking Interior and Treasury to do is follow the letter of the law," Principal Chief David Hill of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation told Indianz.Com on Friday. "Recipients of CARES Act Title V funds must satisfy the definitions for both 'Indian Tribe' and 'Tribal Government,' and ANCs do not."

"This is something both the United States and the ANCs themselves have recognized in prior official statements, as our comments and many other comments have pointed out," Hill said.

Chief Hill Announcement

“While I appreciate the cooperation and our progress to this point, this is no time to relax. We are still seeing cases increase every day. Please continue to shelter-in-place and stay home unless absolutely necessary. Mvto!” - Principal Chief David Hill #OneMvskoke #StayHome #KEEPFlatteningTheCurve

Posted by The Muscogee Creek Nation on Friday, April 17, 2020
Principal Chief David Hill: 'While I appreciate the cooperation and our progress to this point, this is no time to relax. We are still seeing cases increase every day. Please continue to shelter-in-place and stay home unless absolutely necessary. Mvto!'

But just like Sweeney, who served among the ranks of Alaska Native corporate leadership before joining the Trump administration in the summer of 2018, the executives aren't standing down. They too have accused the lower 48 of creating divisions despite the unprecedented unity the tribes have shown in the last few days.

"The law is clear," 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 a statement.

"Our legal mandate as Alaska Native corporation leaders is to support our Alaska Native shareholders economically, culturally and socially," the corporate executives said. "We meet the legal standard of the CARES Act and also the mission of service."

After the CARES Act portal went live, Indianz.Com contacted nearly every single Alaska Native regional corporation. Of those who responded, none would acknowledge directly whether they had intended to apply for a share of the $8 billion fund.

The preliminary data obtained by Indianz.Com shows the ANCs were raring to go on Monday. They all provided key information required by the CARES Act "certification" form -- population, land base, employees and expenditures.

Tribes are required to submit the same data in order to receive a share of the $8 billion. But they argue that the for-profit corporations are at an unfair advantage because of the way the Trump administration has so far structured the program.

The Cherokee Nation, for example, exercises jurisdiction and provides governmental services across a 14-county area in northeastern Oklahoma. But even if the tribe, which is one of the two largest in the U.S., claims all of the acreage as its land base, it still trails one of the Alaska Native corporations.

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

"You see 1.5 million acres there, you see 1.6 million acres there," Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. told Indianz.Com. "Their land holdings in total exceed the land holdings of every single tribe in the country except for Navajo Nation."

The Navajo Nation is the other largest tribe in the U.S., home to the biggest reservation in terms of acreage and the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases and coronavirus related deaths in Indian Country.

"So we're talking about a situation in which, if land holdings are accorded any weight at all, it's unfair," said Hoskin, whose tribe submitted its CARES Act certification on Thursday. "But the level of unfairness will be proportional to how much weight is put on land holdings because the Alaska Native corporations will able to report a large amount of land."

An initial analysis of the preliminary data bears out those fears. As of mid-day Friday, 358 entities from Alaska -- including dozens of for-profit corporations -- submitted certifications, compared to 294 from the lower 48.

When Alaska's total land base is counted, the state far exceeds any other region of Indian Country. According to the data, entities from the state claimed nearly 50.1 million acres, or more than half of the approximately 89.7 million acres reported to the system as a whole so far.

Oklahoma -- which is home to the second largest population of American Indians and Alaska Natives -- comes in a distant second. Tribes in the state so far reported a land base of about 12.7 million acres.

"If you put aside what I think is the primary issue -- which is that the Alaska Native coroprations are not tribal governments and therefore not qualified to receive a share of the funds in this part of the CARES Act," said Hoskin, "and you look underneath, you see the disparity that will come out of the process that allows them to participate."

The employee data also exposes disparities. Alaska again ranks the highest, accounting for 18.2 percent of the numbers reported to Treasury as of mid-day on Friday.

This time, Oklahoma comes in a distant third, representing only 12.6 percent. California, whose tribal nations employ a significant number of people through their gaming operations, is second, with 15.5 percent of the total.

Treasury also asked participants to submit "expenditures for the most recently completed fiscal year," or the amount of money they spent during that time period. Again, Alaska reports the biggest share -- 23.3 percent, with California trailing at nearly 15.6 percent of the total, according to the preliminary data.

Population in fact is the only metric in which Alaska does not rank at number 1 -- but it's still in the top three. Only South Dakota and Oklahoma are reporting larger numbers of tribal citizens.

Corporations in Alaska, which are chartered under state law, are allowed to claim shareholders in the same manner as tribes and their situations, another factor that helps take them to the top of the list.

President Jonathan Nez of the Navajo Nation underscored the disparities during a roundtable hosted by a key Democratic lawmaker on Friday afternoon. Speaking from his home, where he remains in self-quarantine after coming into contact with an emergency medical technician who has tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, he said he was extremely "frustrated" by the failure of the government to live up to its treaty and trust responsibilities.

"Federal funds should not go to for-profit corporations," Nez told Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources. "Half of this $8 billion might not even go directly into tribal communities."

The Navajo Nation submitted its CARES Act certification on Friday evening, a spokesperson told Indianz.Com, so the tribe's information is not present in the preliminary data obtained by the site.

The Department of the Treasury gave Indian Country until 11:59pm Eastern on Friday to submit certifications. Those that fail to do so by the deadline "may not receive any payment," the agency states on its website.

According to the CARES Act, Treasury is ultimately charged with distributing the $8 billion into the bank accounts of tribes and other applicants. But how that exactly happens has not yet been made public.

During consultation calls with tribes on April 2 and April 9, the department indicated a formula would be released this week but so far one has not surfaced. Tribal advocates who spoke to Indianz.Com on Friday believe the methodology will come out next week -- just days before the CARES Act requires the money to be disbursed.

With Indian Country in the dark, six tribes -- including three based in Alaska -- filed suit against the Trump administration late Thursday evening. Their goal is to stop the department from providing any of the $8 billion to for-profit corporations.

"Defendant Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, threatens to defy Congress’s mandate by diverting Title V relief funds away from these sovereign Tribal governments to more than 230 for-profit corporations incorporated under the laws of the State of Alaska and their shareholders," the 27-page complaint filed by the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, the Tulalip Tribes, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Akiak Native Community, the Asa’carsarmiut Tribe and the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island alleges.

In a letter provided to Indianz.Com, the Aleut Community said it had no choice but to go to court. The tribe, whose citizens live in an in isolated area in the middle of the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska, blamed the Trump administration for failing to carry out the federal government's mandate to engage in meaningful consultation with Indian nations.

“We joined the complaint late last night only after fully participating in the Department of Interior and Department of Treasury consultation process over the past week and seeing no changes to the interpretation of ‘tribal government,” President Amos T. Philemonoff, Sr. told members of Alaska's all-Republican Congressional delegation.

Philemonoff praised the lawmakers for a letter they sent to both departments earlier this week. On April 14, the delegation suggested that tribes -- as an action of their inherent sovereignty -- be able to designate regional organizations, or other regional entities, as the recipients of their shares of the $8 billion fund.

“We have regularly supported this practice, have utilized this when needed, and find this method to properly allow for the recognition of tribal sovereignty while providing flexibility for Alaska’s tribes and tribal organizations to cooperatively work together to ensure the maximum utilization of limited resources,” Philemonoff wrote.

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