Supreme Court deems Alaska Native corporations eligible for CARES Act funding

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times
Closeup of gavel in court room.

FARMINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 25 that Alaska Native corporations are eligible to receive a portion of federal coronavirus relief money designated for Native American tribes, despite opposition from several tribes, including the Navajo Nation.

Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law last year the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to help response efforts to the coronavirus pandemic.

The relief package allocated $8 billion to "tribal governments" to compensate for unbudgeted expenditures made in response to COVID-19.

The question for the high court was whether Alaska Native corporations are "Indian tribes" and eligible to receive any of the $8 billion.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement that the 6-3 ruling "undermines" federally recognized tribes and the decision "will have consequences far beyond" the allocation of CARES Act funding.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 dispensed with the idea of recreating in Alaska the system of reservations that were in place in the lower 48 states.

Instead, the act formed Alaska Native corporations as state-chartered, for-profit entities that care for the social, cultural and economic well-being of their Alaska Native shareholders, according to the ANCSA Regional Association.

"We are pleased to see the court affirm Alaska Native corporations' eligibility for CARES Act funds to help our people and communities recover from the devastating effects of COVID-19," the ANCSA Regional Association and the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association said in a statement to The Associated Press. "Alaska's economy is only now starting to recover, and these funds are needed to help our communities get back on their feet."

Neither entity responded to requests for comment by The Daily Times on June 25.

The Navajo Nation was among several federally-recognized tribes involved in the lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Treasury over the funding.

According to court documents, the Treasury Department set aside in April 2020 approximately 500 million of CARES Act funding for the Alaska Native corporations.

"We have a strong coalition of tribes that are disappointed in the Supreme Court's ruling. This case was never about the funds. Instead, it was about upholding tribal sovereignty and the status of federally recognized tribes," Nez said.

"Many tribal nations have had to fight hard over the course of many years to gain federal recognition to be eligible for programs and services that ultimately benefit our people across Indian Country," Nez added, then recommended that Congress clarify that Alaska Native corporations are not federally recognized under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act to avoid future issues.

The Supreme Court decision reverses the decision in September 2020 from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The press release from Nez's office states that the high court ruling does not affect the allocation to the Navajo Nation from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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