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Tribes freeze Alaska Native Corporation pandemic funds again

Tara Sweeney Assistant Interior Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney recommended that Alaska Native Corporations receive CARES Act money that the U.S. Congress earmarked for tribal government. COURTESY / Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

WASHINGTON – The Cheyenne River, Oglala, Rosebud Sioux and other tribes succeeded in barring the release of federal pandemic relief money to Alaska Native Corporations for a second time when a U.S. District Judge here granted a stay on July 7.

District of Columbia Federal Judge Ahmet P. Mehta stopped the U.S. Treasury Department from disbursing the ANCs’ share of the tribes’ $8 billion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds just one week after he ruled that the corporations are eligible for it and ordered its release.

At the time, he also was presiding over another tribal government plaintiffs’ case, suing for release of the money to meet Indian country’s urgent needs for dealing with effects of the novel coronavirus’ spread.

Since then, 90 percent of the money has been made available to tribes, according to Treasury.

Seeing as how his eligibility decision led tribes to promise an appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court, Mehta put the hold on the remaining money, provided the plaintiffs should file a notice of appeal by July 14 in the consolidated tribal cases referred to as Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation et al v. Steven Mnuchin in his official capacity as Secretary of the Treasury.

The judge had granted the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction prohibiting distributions to ANCs early on in the case, but he lifted it on June 26 when he ruled them eligible.

With the stay of his June decision in place, he reasoned, the outcome of an appeal would determine the correctness of his interpretation of Congress’ intent in authorizing the money.

The public interest “rests in carrying out Congress’ will, and that interest is not served if ANCs receive and spend tens of millions of dollars of emergency relief to which they are not entitled,” he wrote.

However, he added, “A delayed appeal would defeat the very purposes for which Congress appropriated CARES Act funds on an emergency basis.”

The plaintiffs “have not suggested that they intend to delay prosecuting an appeal; to the contrary, they have said they will pursue expedited review,” Mehta recognized.

“Nevertheless, to ensure prompt appellate consideration, the court will condition the requested stay on plaintiffs’ filing both a notice of appeal and a motion for expedited review before the District of Columbia Circuit by no later than July 14, 2020,” he said.

The notice and motion remained to be filed at press time, but if the appeal proceeds, it has potential to clarify what Mehta described as “the impressive array of textual, historical, and practical evidence amassed by the parties, “all of which must be viewed against the unique treatment of Native Alaskans by Congress and Executive Branch agencies.”

The dozens of tribal government plaintiffs that filed the now-consolidated cases argue that ANCs, as for-profit entities, fail to qualify for the money that Congress earmarked specifically for tribal governments in the March 27 CARES Act, which provided support of a total $150 billion to local and territorial governments, as well as tribes.

Mehta interpreted Congress’ intent to mean including the ANCs in the distribution. That’s what Assistant Interior Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, an Alaska Native and ANC shareholder advised Mnuchin, too, resulting in federal lawmakers call for an investigation.

Alaska has 229 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.

The 13 Alaska Native regional corporations and some 200 village corporations came about due to 1971 Congressional enabling legislation in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.


(Contact Talli Nauman at

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