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Coronavirus Emergency Aid Has Become Its Own Disaster in Indian Country

The Trump administration turned scarce funding and a growing crisis among Native communities into an existential fight over sovereignty.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In Indian Country right now, like so much of the country, the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed itself as a series of overlapping and compounding crises: Tribal leaders have rushed to secure personal protective equipment for essential workers; organized to ensure vulnerable community members have access to food, water, and safe housing; and lobbied for desperately needed federal relief. But as the number of positive cases in Indian Country continues to outpace the American average—from the pueblos of New Mexico to Navajo Nation and the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation—a new crisis has emerged.

The Trump administration announced earlier this month that it would be opening the $8 billion set aside for tribal governments in the federal relief package to include what are called Alaska Native Corporations, which are for-profit corporations created by the United States government to hold and maintain Alaska Native land. Some of these corporations count themselves among the largest businesses in the state. And as Politico reported last week, Bureau of Indian Affairs Assistant Secretary Tara Sweeney, a Trump appointee and former external affairs director for the most profitable ANC in the state, was a leading force in the decision. “Sweeney’s role has since come under intense scrutiny,” Politico noted, “with Democrats and several tribal organizations seizing on the financial interest she retains as a shareholder of her former employer, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, according to financial disclosure forms.”

On one hand, this is a story about congressional appropriations and tribal governments safeguarding sovereignty. But it’s also about desperately needed resources in the midst of a pandemic. Right now, Native people in Alaska are being forced to make the decision between opening their fisheries or financial disaster. Communities are facing down a once-in-a-generation public health threat with the nearest hospital 45 minutes away by ambulance helicopter. In a letter to the House Natural Resources Committee, Andrew Jimmie, an Alaska Native Public Health Board representative and the elected leader of the village of Minto, laid out the case as he saw it. “It is crucial to understand that many rural Alaska villages do not have running water, reliable internet access, and easy access to hospitals,” Jimmie wrote. “With a lack of adequate housing, it is difficult for village residents to remain at a distance from ill people who are sick.” This is the need. These are the people now trapped in what has turned into a political battle.


The ANC system is complex, but the basics aren’t impossible to grasp. To start: ANCs are state-chartered corporations that were created by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or ANCSA, in 1971. The act was designed under pressure from the oil industry, which wanted to drill and build pipelines, and Alaska Native leaders, who wanted to put a stop to the incessant land theft that defined Alaska’s first 12 years of statehood. As a result of ANCSA, Alaska Native tribes, or villages, do not own the land—the ANCs do.

There are two types of ANCs, regional and village. The 12 regional ANCs are required by law to proportionally spread 70 percent of their timber and subsurface development revenues—from things like oil, gas, or minerals—among all the regional ANCs, which then must send at least 50 percent of that money to the village corporations. Unlike governments, ANCs are designed to make as much money as possible for their shareholders, namely by the extractive efforts of mining and drilling. (And as The Washington Post reported in 2010, ANCs often do not pay out the majority of their profits to Alaska Native shareholders. “In many cases, the bulk of the money and jobs has gone to non-Native executives, managers, employees, and traditional federal contractors in the lower 48 states,” according to that report.) Like governments, though, ANCs manage the land—roughly 44 millions acres—the Alaska Native villages live on, and their funding in part helps these villages function.

Within the 12 regional corporations are 12 nonprofit corporations, who are tasked with administering social programs that were previously handled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But as stated on the website of the 12 regional ANCs, “Alaska Native regional corporations do not possess a government-to-government relationship with the federal government.” So to ensure that ANCs would be included in the CARES Act funding, the Treasury found its justification in the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which defines the village and regional ANCs as “Indian tribes.”

This decision resulted in a great deal of frustration as tribal governments found themselves responding to what they saw as two emergencies—one of the government-to-government precedent being broken, and one of Sweeney’s conflict of interest. In response, on Friday, six tribes, including three in Alaska, filed a legal complaint against Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, asking a D.C. judge to halt the payments to the ANCs.

Complicating matters further, on top of those two issues, there was also a data leak on Friday, first reported by Indian Country Today, that resulted in the spread of sensitive tribal government information that had been submitted to the Treasury to secure the coronavirus relief funds. Using the leaked submitted data, Indianz.com, an outlet owned by Ho-Chunk, Inc., a corporation operated by Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, reported on Friday that dozens of ANCs, including Sweeney’s former employer, all requested funding relief through the Treasury’s portal, which closed submissions at midnight on Friday. In total, Indianz.com reported that 294 tribes from the Lower 48 put in requests, compared to 358 entities from Alaska. (For reference, the National Congress of American Indians’ latest count records 229 Alaska Native nations compared to 345 in the Lower 48.) They tagged these findings “#CorporateCashGrab” and#RobberyInBroadDaylight.”

This is where the 44 million acres that the ANCs oversee comes into play. As Indian Country Today editor Mark Trahant pointed out on Monday, it appears that Congress has structured the $8 billion relief fund “toward land, not population, or even coronavirus-related costs.” Tribal leaders believe this would grant the land-rich ANCs an upper hand in the disbursement process, both now and in the future. There’s also the matter of employment, Trahant noted, as a “study by Alaska Business found that only 27 percent of Alaska Native corporate employees were based in the state, while the rest worked ‘worldwide.’”

“No one is saying that Alaska Natives and their governments should not receive support,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. told me. “No one is saying the Alaska Native Corporations shouldn’t also get support.” The problem, he said, was that the funding set aside for tribal governments, which are prevented from raising revenue through taxation, was already limited—just $8 billion compared to the $20 billion requested—and the inclusion of ANCs has made that pie even smaller.

Tribal leaders like Hoskin are also concerned that this decision could open the door for ANCs to stand alongside tribal governments in future funding efforts. In a letter shared with The New Republic sent by Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation President Bernadine Burnette to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Burnette wrote of ANCs, “Crucially, they do not have a political relationship with the federal government, and they do not constitute ‘Tribal governments’ under Section 601 of the CARES Act.”

In another letter, this one sent to Mnuchin by Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians and the Quinault Indian Nation, Sharp and the NCAI “expressed great concern as to the Administration’s purported interpretation of the breadth and scope of what is a ‘recognized governing body.’”

Last Thursday, a letter signed by 12 House members—among them, all four Native Congress members: Republicans Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin, and Democrats Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids—was sent to Mnuchin and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. “The spirit and language of the law is clear: to provide direct relief to governmental entities,” they wrote. “Any attempt to divert funds provided under the [Community Reinvestment Fund] away from the governing bodies of federally recognized tribal nations, which include Alaska Native Villages, would clearly be contrary to congressional intent.” In a separate statement to The New Republic, Haaland pointed out that tribal corporations can apply for funding outside of the $8 billion set aside for tribal governments, and are free to access Indian Health Service relief funding through their Native Tribal Health Consortium.

Senator Chuck Schumer took a far less conciliatory tone in his assessment of the matter:

Schumer, who rarely interacts or steps in to comment publicly on Indian Country issues, was publicly accusing Sweeney of bias on an issue that many had already raised during her confirmation hearing in 2018. (Senators Tom Udall and Maria Cantwell both asked Sweeney to recuse herself from any cases involving her former ANC and to never seek a waiver of recusal, which Sweeney agreed to do, leading to her unanimous approval by the chamber.)

But Schumer’s post, unlike the calls by tribal leaders and the bipartisan letter from Native House members, carried with it the baggage of a partisan fight. Sweeney shot back at Schumer almost immediately, writing that his jab was “an ignorant and despicably low attack that could not be further from the truth.”

The same day as Schumer’s tweet, four ANC executives—Bering Straits Native Corporation’s Gail Schubert, CIRI’s Sophie Minich, Chugach Alaska Corporation’s Sheri Buretta, and Koniag’s Shauna Hegna—wrote an op-ed in Indian Country Today that defended Sweeney and made the case for the inclusion of the corporations alongside the tribal governments.

Their message was echoed in a statement to The New Republic by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, who said that she was “extremely disappointed” by Schumer’s “baseless allegations.” In response to a follow-up question about ANCs seeking alternative federal funding sources, Murkowski’s communications director added that, “Senator Murkowski knows the law is clear and that ANCs are eligible for [CARES Act] funding.”

At this point, the deadline for the Treasury to reverse its decision has now come and gone. The lawsuit filed by the six tribes will seek to pause the distribution of the funds, which were set to go out starting April 26, which is itself an issue as the money is badly needed on the ground. Rather than solving the issue in a timely manner, there are just more questions and mistrust: Is it a corporate cash grab or a misguided attempt to make Alaska Natives whole? An open-air cash grab by a former oil-loving ANC executive or a mistake by the same stumbling Democratic leaders?

Where you end up after all of this is tragedy. The opportunistic grift that these systems foster is not an accidental outcome, but the only logical endpoint. The models set up by the United States to ostensibly help Native and Alaska Native people achieve independence and sovereignty, be they the reservation system or ANCs, too often turn out to be tools for further colonization. The subsequent divisiveness over who gets to sit at the table for federal funding is a distraction for tribal leaders trying to focus on their own nations, but a distraction that cannot be ignored. The window to act, to save the most vulnerable in Indian Country and ensure that tribal economies survive the crisis, is closing fast, and it’s the federal government’s hand that’s slamming it shut.