U.S. Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court during a warm autumn day on Oct. 22, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images/TNS)

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that challenge the distribution of CARES Act funding to Alaska Native regional and village corporations.

Congress passed the CARES Act on March 27, 2020, in response to the public health emergency and economic hardships resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The total relief package was $150 billion, with $8 billion directed to tribal governments. However, several federally recognized tribes, and some Alaska tribal organizations, filed a lawsuit that said Alaska Native corporations do not constitute “tribal governments” and therefore should not receive the relief funding. 

The point of distinction is this: The group of Lower 48 and six Alaska Native tribes argue that the 1975 Indian Self Determination Act does not cover Native corporations in its definition of “tribe.”

Lower courts split on whether Alaska Native corporations are eligible, and the U.S. Treasury Department asked the high court to review the case after the D.C. Circuit Court in September ruled that they aren’t.

The 12 for-profit regional corporations and more than 200 village corporations were created under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The act transferred 44 million acres of land to the corporations, which also divided $962.5 million in compensation for land given up in the settlement agreement. With its foundation of Alaska Native corporate ownership, ANCSA was a significant departure from the Lower 48 reservation system.

However, ANCSA also mandated that the corporations provide for their Alaska Native shareholders economically, culturally and socially. 

The September ruling denied Alaska Native corporations funding allocated to a “recognized governing body of an Indian tribe” under the CARES Act. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Alaska Native corporations appealed that ruling, which the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear. The state of Alaska, Gov. Mike Dunleavy as well as Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young support the Alaska Native corporations’ appeal. 

The “friend of the court” brief by Alaska’s congressional delegation notes that the D.C. Circuit Court’s decision destabilizes agency and legislative practice in place for more than 40 years. It also undermines systems that deliver programs and services to Alaska Natives across the state, the brief argues.

“We worked hard to secure funding within the CARES Act specifically to address the needs of Alaska Native communities,” according to a statement from the delegation. “That funding was set aside to bring immediate emergency relief to indigenous communities, regardless of where that relief comes from. It is unacceptable that COVID-19 aid continues to be withheld from a subset of Alaska Native people simply because of the unique circumstances that exist in Alaska. Beyond the CARES Act, this decision counteracts over 45 years of precedent and federal Indian law.

“The decision made by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals should be reversed,” according to the delegation. “We are encouraged that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case. We are hopeful they will join us in the effort to protect federal Indian law and provide critical relief for all Alaska Native and American Indian peoples in our great state.”

The filing further notes that COVID cases in some of Alaska’s villages have infected 20% of the population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 survey, 15.8% of Alaska’s overall population is Alaska Native and American Indian. With the pandemic just reaching the villages, Alaska Native and American Indian people already account for 32.3% of total deaths in Alaska. 

Meanwhile, the lawsuits are holding up needed relief funds, according to the appeal.

On Friday, The ANCSA Regional Association and the Alaska Native Village Corp. Association issued a statement welcoming the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case.

“As Alaska’s harsh winter season rages on, Alaska Native people and the Alaska Native communities continue to suffer disproportionately from the devastating effects of the pandemic,” the statement reads. “The latest COVID-19 relief bill did not include funds for tribal organizations — making it imperative for Alaska Native corporations (ANCs) to finally gain access to the CARES Act tribal funds Congress intended for us last spring. This long overdue emergency assistance is critical to the thousands of Alaska Native people who rely on ANCs for vital health, education and social service programs.”

The statement says the tribal associations strongly believe the Alaska Native people should not be punished for the tribal system enacted by Congress 50 years ago. 

“Nor should they be denied critical aid in a global pandemic because of a law’s use of commas. We are simply asking for Alaska Native people to receive the same support provided to millions of other Americans.” 

Contact staff writer Julie Stricker at 459-7532