Alaska tribes join lawsuit to block Alaska Native corporations from receiving COVID-19 aid

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Three Alaska tribes have joined a federal lawsuit that seeks to stop Alaska Native corporations from receiving a share of $8 billion in federal coronavirus funding.

The lawsuit was filed in the district court of Washington D.C. on Friday by the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, the Tulalip Tribes and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. The tribes from Washington and Maine are joined by three Alaska tribes: Akiak Native Community, Asa’carsamiut Tribe and Aleut Community of St. Paul Island.

The six tribes are suing U.S. Treasury Department Secretary Steve Mnuchin, arguing that for-profit Alaska Native corporations should not receive a share of the CARES Act. They are also seeking a temporary restraining order to stop the funding from being allocated on April 26, until the questions of eligibility can be resolved.

According to the lawsuit, the language of the bill is unambiguous that CARES Act funding should only go to tribal governments. As Alaska Native corporations aren’t tribal governments, they shouldn’t qualify, the lawsuit states.

Alaska’s Congressional delegation doesn’t agree, saying the funding package was always intended to include Alaska Native corporations as they fit the definition of tribes under the 1975 Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act.

“Let me make this very clear: Alaska Native Corporations not only fit the bill’s definition for funding eligibility, but for decades have been empowering Alaska Natives by providing economic opportunity, education, and vital services to Native communities across our State,” Congressman Don Young, R-Alaska, said through a prepared statement.

Mnuchin and U.S. Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt have not announced publicly exactly how the $8 billion will be spent. The question of which organizations get to share in the federal coronavirus funding will have big financial impacts.

Friday’s lawsuit states that if funding is allocated according to land holdings, Alaska Native corporations that own 44 million acres of land, will get an outsized share, and tribes will see their slice of the pie shrink dramatically.

The Alaska Congressional delegation sent a letter to Mnuchin and Bernhardt, requesting that all 574 federally recognized tribes across the country receive a minimum payment. The letter also states that it’s imperative Alaska Native corporations be allowed to receive the funding.

Federal authorities are expected to announce a funding formula sometime next week.

That coronavirus funding won’t come soon enough for the three Alaska tribes listed in the lawsuit. All three state that they are struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and need funding to help provide services for their citizens.

The collapse of RavnAir is also said to be hurting their coronavirus response, according to court documents:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the significant challenges facing the Asa’carsarmiut Tribe. The Tribe must address the needs of its homeless families as well as of the many intergenerational families who live in overcrowded substandard housing, lacking water and sewer services. These conditions create a danger to the entire community, and the Tribe is unable to obtain necessary sanitary products because there is no airline service currently.”

The lawsuit follows a feud that played out earlier in the week on social media about the role played by Tara Sweeney, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, in deciding how the coronavirus funding is spent.

Sweeney, a former vice president of Arctic Slope Regional Corp., is accused of improperly diverting the coronavirus funding to Alaska Native corporations. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, took to Twitter, saying that Sweeney is trying to profit from the coronavirus funding as she remains a shareholder of ASRC.

Sweeney hit back on Twitter saying, “Even for you, this is an ignorant and despicably low attack that could not be further from the truth,” before saying, “perhaps you should read the law you negotiated and voted for.”

Alaska’s Congressional delegation and Gov. Mike Dunleavy also took to social media to defend Sweeney. “I am appalled that you would consider excluding our Alaska Native entities. Read the bill,” the governor wrote on Twitter.

Sullivan said the accusations by Schumer amounted to a “character assassination of Tara Sweeney who has impeccable integrity” and that the minority leader should get back to legislating.

According to reporting from Indian Country Today, Schumer is not alone in criticizing Sweeney. The Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association has told the Arizona-based news outlet that it has ”lost confidence” in Sweeney’s leadership and is calling for her ouster.

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