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Appeals court rules no relief funds for Alaska Native Corporations
Several tribes join case as plaintiffs including Oglala Sioux Tribe
Wednesday, September 30, 2020
Native Sun News Today Health & Environment Editor

SPREADSHEET Coronavirus Relief Fund allocations for tribal governments

WASHINGTON – In the most recent about-face on CARES Act funding for Alaska Native Corporations, a federal appeals court panel ruled September 25 that they are not eligible for any of the $8 billion in pandemic relief Congress earmarked for tribal governments.

The decision responds to the consolidated cases of dozens of plaintiff American Indian tribes, including Alaska Native villages, which maintain that the corporations are for-profit state-chartered businesses and have no government-to-government trust relationship with the United States that would qualify them to administer the funding.

The tribes prevented the disbursement to the corporations early this year, suing the U.S. Treasury Department for its interpretation of Congressional intent in the March allocation to tribal and local governments provided by Title V in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

n Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin opted to include the corporations at the recommendation of Assistant Interior Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, an Alaska Native Corporation shareholder.

District of Columbia Federal Judge Ahmet P. Mehta ruled them eligible in July but barred disbursement of their share pending the appeal that led to the most recent decision — reversing his.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, thanked Mehta for his opinions in the cases, saying: “In considering the difficult legal question now before us, we have benefitted greatly from the district court’s two thoughtful opinions, rendered under severe time constraints, which carefully assess the arguments on both sides.”

The unanimous higher court decision hinged on the 1975 Indian Self Determination and Educational Assistance Act. Under it, “Because no Alaska Native Corporation has been federally recognized as an Indian tribe,” Circuit Judge Gregory G. Katsas wrote, “We hold that Alaska Native Corporations are not eligible for funding under Title V of the CARES Act.”

Kyla Mermejo-Varga receives daily visitor Rambo Beasty Boots as she works with pandemic protection mask at Picuris Pueblo, one of dozens of tribes that sued successfully for CARES Act distribution. Photo courtesy Picuris Pueblo Bison Program

Big Fire Law and Policy Group, which represented the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in the case, called the decision an “excellent result for sovereign tribal governments.”

The Alaska Regional Association and the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association lamented, “This ruling is a devastating blow to Alaska Native communities facing an alarming increase in Covid-19.”

Noting that data shows Alaska Native people suffer from a disproportionate number of infections, hospitalizations and deaths, the organization issued a statement saying, “We fear this deeply flawed ruling will only make things worse by keeping critical health services and economic relief from reaching our remote communities and villages who are most at risk.”

Circuit Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson concurred with Katsus’ opinion but also acknowledged their plight. “This decision is an unfortunate and unintended consequence of high-stakes, time-sensitive legislative drafting,” she said.

“It is indisputable that the services Alaska Native Corporations provide to Alaska Native communities—including healthcare, elder care, educational support and housing assistance—have been made only more vital due to the pandemic.”

However, Katsas, noted, “We are confident that, if there are Alaska Natives uncared for because they are not enrolled in any recognized village, either the State of Alaska or the Department of Health and Human Services will be able to fill the void.”

Alaska has 229 native tribal governments, more than a third of the U.S. total 574, but only 106,660 Alaskan Natives, or 1.5 percent of the U.S. indigenous population.


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