Native American Tribes Sue U.S. Treasury to Stop Coronavirus Relief from Going to Corporations

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Six Native American tribes––including the Tulalip Tribes and the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation in Washington State. The Akiak Native Community, the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, the Asa’carsarmiut Tribe of Alaska, and Maine’s Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians––have sued the United States Treasury Department to make sure coronavirus relief funds go directly to tribal governments and not Alaska Native corporations.

The plaintiffs say in their suit, which names Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin as a defendant, that Alaska Native corporations are not eligible to receive funds designated for tribal governments because they are for-profit “state-chartered and state-regulated private business corporations.”

The fact that these corporations have the same legal status as tribal governments by the federal government, they contend, “reduces the funds available for allocation and distribution to Plaintiffs, who are in dire need for the funds to support the necessary and increased expenditures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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Alaska Native corporations, which own 44 million acres of land in Alaska, were devised in 1971 after Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. That legislation created 12 separate sections, or regions, of the state, where corporations could purchase land and conduct business such as mining and fishing.

The Interior Department, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, argues that Alaska Native corporations are eligible for coronavirus relief. They’ve cited a definition that includes them as an “Indian Tribe” in the federal bill.

Earlier this week, tribes alleged that Tara Sweeney, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, is deciding how this funding is spent. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) also commented on Sweeney’s role earlier this week.

“We can’t put these corporations before tribal governments [and] people,” Schumer wrote.