A whiteboard at Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C., reading "Get to Yes" is seen in an Inupiaq language social media post from Assistant Secretary Tara Sweeney on March 26, 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic was disrupting life in Indian Country. "No objections from my staff of little people!" the post read. Photo: ASIndianAffairs

Alaska Native corporations in line for billions in coronavirus relief promised to tribes

With a major assist from the Trump administration, Alaska Native corporations are poised to claim a large share of an $8 billion coronavirus relief fund despite not being tribal governments.

In a statement to Indianz.Com on Monday morning, the Department of the Interior made clear that it was taking the side of corporations that own millions of acres in Alaska and report billions of dollars in revenue. Even though consultation had yet to conclude on the $8 billion fund, the matter had already been settled with a link to the definition of "Indian tribe" that included the non-governmental entities.

Just a few hours later, the Department of the Treasury confirmed the fears of tribes who only became aware of the intrusion three days prior. A "certification" form stated that Alaska Native corporations are more than welcome to seek a share of the fund by claiming their shareholders as citizens and having their fee lands treated in the same manner as reservations in the lower 48 even though the courts have said otherwise.

And just a couple of hours after that, the special treatment for the 49th state was being solidified even further. Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney -- who is a former high-ranking executive at the wealthiest Native corporation -- hosted a separate coronavirus call for Alaskans, telling them she was aware that tribes in the lower 48 have been fiercely lobbying against the inclusion of non-governmental entities in the relief fund.

"I want to convey to the group that I know many people were busy over this last weekend responding to actions taken by organizations external to Alaska," Sweeney said in a veiled swipe at the National Congress of American Indians, the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Association and other Indian nations who rushed to respond to the new coronavirus threat created by the Trump administration.

A copy of the agenda for an Alaska-specific call hosted by Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney on April 13, 2020, as the comment period on the $8 billion tribal relief fund came to a close.

"The DOI is going to follow the law as prescribed by Congress and mandated to the administration," Sweeney told her fellow Alaska Natives, echoing the statement provided to Indianz.Com earlier in the day.

But as the comment period on the $8 billion fund was coming to a close on Monday, more tribes in the lower 48 states registered vehement objections with official Washington. The Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes said including Alaska Native corporations would result in "double and triple counting" of their populations, thus depriving the rest of Indian Country of their rightful shares.

"Specifically, villages and ANCs share citizens, shareholders, and land bases; improper inclusion of both villages and ANCs in the data collection would result in double and triple counting various factors in favor of Alaska," the leaders of the Cherokee Nation, the Chickasaw Nation, the Choctaw Nation, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the Seminole Nation said in comments to the Trump administration. The five tribes are based in Oklahoma, which has seen more than 2,100 COVID-19 cases and 108 deaths -- the first in the state was a Cherokee citizen.

The National Indian Gaming Association also objected strongly. The organization, which represents more than 150 tribal governments, said including Alaska Native corporations could consume up to $4 billion of the $8 billion tribal fund.

"As the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) makes clear: Alaska Native Regional Corporations and Alaska Native Village Corporations are state chartered, stockholder-owned corporations, held by Alaska Natives," NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. told the Trump administration.

"They are not Tribal governments, nor are they arms of tribal governments, and should not be permitted to unfairly benefit from funds appropriated for tribal governments," Stevens added.

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney addresses the executive council winter session of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., on February 11, 2020. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

And it's not just the $8 billion relief fund that has drawn interest among Alaskans. A spokesperson for Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which is the largest Native business entity in terms of revenue, told Indianz.Com that the $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) is on their radar.

"As the situation is still evolving and there could be additional programs in the future, we are currently looking at ways to participate in the PPP and other opportunities within our various lines of businesses," the spokesperson said.

"We’re also engaged in learning all we can about the $8 billion tribal set aside to assist our tribal members in the Arctic Slope region. Alaska holds 229 federally recognized tribes and the Arctic Slope has nine with more than 13,000 members," the spokesperson told Indianz.Com, citing numbers that could be counted more than once as part of the coronavirus relief fund.

Arctic Slope happens to be the same corporation where Sweeney was serving as an executive vice president when President Donald Trump tapped her to serve as the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, the government official with the most responsibilities to tribes and their citizens. According to her financial disclosure form, she earned a salary of more than $1 million in 2017 and in the early months of 2018.

On top of her salary, Sweeney participated in two additional "incentive" programs for being employed at the Alaska Native regional corporation. According to the disclosure form, she valued each payment at $250,001 to $500,000.

The large dollar figures highlight the economic powerhouses that Arctic Slope and other Native corporations have become in the decades since they were first incorporated under Alaska law. They also explain why tribes in the lower 48 are so concerned that a huge portion of the $8 billion will end up in the hands of corporate entities.

For example, the "certification" form released on Monday allows Alaska Native corporations to include all of the acreage they have selected pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act as part of their "land base." Arctic Slope alone holds title to more than 5 million acres, according to the ANCSA Regional Association.

Calista Corporation holds title to about 6.5 million acres in Alaska, according to the association. And Doyon Limited owns a whopping 12.5 million.

In terms of land base, these three Alaska Native corporations alone dwarf nearly every federally recognized Indian nation in the lower 48. The only one that comes close is the Ute Tribe, whose Uintah and Ouray Reservation covers about 4.5 million in acres in Utah, of which only about 1.3 million acres is held in trust.

Every other tribe with a large land base in the lower 48 falls far behind the Alaska corporations. The Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe and one of the poorest counties in America, is about 2.2 million acres in South Dakota.

In fact, only one reservation is larger than the holdings of any of these three particular Alaska Native entities. That would be the Navajo Nation, whose lands in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah are being hit the hardest by the coronavirus.

Despite having the largest number of COVID-19 positive cases, the tribe has yet to see a major influx of coronavirus funds promised by the federal government, President Jonathan Nez has said. He repeated the message in a town hall to his people on Tuesday.

"We should be at the forefront," Nez said from his seventh day of self-quarantine, a step he is taking after coming into contact with an emergency medical technician who has tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Besides the emergency medical technician, whose positive test was confirmed last Tuesday, two tribal police officers have contracted COVID-19, Nez said from his home on the Navajo Nation.

"The people on the front lines are testing positive for COVID-19, and when they do, they have to be sent home," Nez said during the broadcast. "We can't afford two police officers to be sent home."

COVID-19 Townhall Update

Posted by Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer on Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer: COVID-19 Town Hall - April 14, 2020

Vice President Myron Lizer came into contact with the same front line responder as Nez. He too is in self-quarantine, with both officials running and overseeing their government through virtual, cellular and other means.

"We're pretty confident we didn't contract the virus," Lizer said on the town hall.

In comparison, Alaska Natives have seen fewer than 10 confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to daily data provided by the Indian Health Service. After an initial rush in coronavirus testing -- the region at one point had administered far more than most other parts of Indian Country -- no new tests have been conducted in the past couple of days, the figures show.

Still, Alaska Native corporations -- like businesses across America -- have experienced significant disruptions as a result of the global health pandemic. But tribes in the lower 48 say the entities can benefit from the bipartisan Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, in other ways. The Paycheck Protection Program -- which has shut out small tribal gaming operations -- is one avenue, as the Arctic Slope spokesperson told Indianz.Com.

The $8 billion relief fund, on the other hand, is supposed to help tribal governments address COVID-19 impacts, a key member of Congress told the Trump administration on Tuesday. Alaska is home to more than 220 tribes, all of which are able to apply for a share of the money, said Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico).

“Any other interpretation would be contrary to congressional intent and an affront to the Indian canon of statutory construction that requires statutes to be construed favorably to Tribes’ benefit,” Udall, who serves as the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a letter to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin.

On her special call on Monday, Assistant Secretary Sweeney encouraged tribes and tribal organizations in Alaska to submit certification forms and ensure they are in line to benefit. She even gave them tips on how to best present their case, promising to reach out to the Department of the Treasury on their behalf when one corporate executive asked whether they can include subsurface estates -- such as oil and gas resources -- in their "land base."

Under ANCSA, the 13 regional corporations can hold title to subsurface estates. Village corporations -- of which there are more than 200 -- hold title to the surface.

"I can get additional guidance from Treasury, but I believe the intent was surface only," Sweeney said on the call, the contents of which were provided to Indianz.Com.

Being an Alaskan, Sweeney also vowed to ensure that state-specific issues are better understood in Washington, D.C., while the Trump administration determines how to distribute the $8 billion.

"We know that in Alaska, our season for ordering materials, supplies is very short," Sweeney said. "We have transportation, logistical issues, so that is a consideration and we’re going to have to wait for further Treasury guidance."

"I will provide the info -- the questions raised tonight -- to Treasury," Sweeney added, ensuring Alaska Natives they have a direct line to air their concerns to the federal agency that's ultimately in charge of the $8 billion fund.

"The Friday deadline is real," she stressed.

According to the CARES Act portal unveiled on Monday afternoon, tribes must submit their certification forms by 11:59pm Eastern on Friday, April 17. They must do so under penalty of federal prosecution -- a requirement not imposed on states or local governments, whose $150 billion relief fund dwarfs the money promised to Indian Country.

"We as tribes have been saying we want our share of our resources," President Nez of the Navajo Nation said on Tuesday.

"Last time I checked, we all are U.S. citizens," he added, underscoring the need for tribes and their citizens to be treated equitably and fairly when addressing the impacts of the coronavirus.

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
'We keep getting left out': Tribal gaming remains locked out of $349 billion coronavirus relief program (April 14, 2020)
Native Sun News Today Editorial: Publishing during a time of a pandemic (April 14, 2020)
Tribes rush to respond to new coronavirus emergency created by Trump administration (April 13, 2020)
Arne Vainio: Zoongide'iwin is the Ojibwe word for courage (April 13, 2020)
Rep. Tom Cole: Oklahomans will overcome the #Coronavirus (April 13, 2020)
Cronkite News: Businesses running out of time with #Coronavirus relief program (April 13, 2020)
VIDEO: Interview with Jonathan Nez of Navajo Nation and Chuck Hoskin Jr. of Cherokee Nation (April 9, 2020)
COVID-19 and American Racism: A Mohawk Perspective (April 9, 2020)
'At this rate, the entire tribe will be extinct': Zuni Pueblo sees COVID-19 cases double as first death is confirmed (April 8, 2020)
Rapid coronavirus tests finally coming to Indian Country as cases continue to rise (April 7, 2020)
Arne Vainio: 'A great sickness has been visited upon us as human beings' (April 7, 2020)
Montana Free Press: Governor OKs Keystone XL construction despite #Coronavirus threat (April 7, 2020)
Cronkite News: Tribal response to 2020 Census lags far behind rest of nation amid #COVID19 (April 6, 2020)
Cronkite News: 'Overwhelming' demand on first day of $349 billion #Coronavirus program (April 6, 2020)
'We need clarification now': Indian gaming industry being shut out of coronavirus relief program (April 3, 2020)
Cronkite News: Trump administration finally closes Grand Canyon after weeks of #COVID19 complaints (April 2, 2020)
'We need the money right now': Tribes await billions of dollars in coronavirus relief (April 1, 2020)
Chuck Hoskin: In times of need, the Cherokee Nation does not stand down (April 1, 2020)
Rep. Tom Cole: More #Coronavirus help is coming to Indian Country (April 1, 2020)
Rep. Markwayne Mullin: The CARES Act brings #Coronavirus relief for tribes (April 1, 2020)
Cronkite News: Lawakers join Navajo Nation in seeking closure of Grand Canyon due to #Coronavirus (April 1, 2020)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention faulted for delay in Indian Country coronavirus funds (March 31, 2020)
Cronkite News: As COVID-19 cases rise, so do hospital worries about equipment (March 31, 2020)
'We're building faith': Social Distance Powwow brings Indian Country together despite coronavirus (March 30, 2020)
Supreme Court churns along with Indian Country case amid coronavirus crisis (March 30, 2020)
Tim Giago: World War II and coronavirus pandemic have similarities (March 30, 2020)
Cronkite News: $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill includes $10 billion for Indian Country (March 30, 2020)
Montana Free Press: Glacier National Park closes over coronavirus concerns (March 30, 2020)
Shane Morigeau: We should do more to protect Montanans (March 27, 2020)
'We were asking for a lot more': Lawmakers fought hard for Indian Country coronavirus relief funds (March 26, 2020)
Coronavirus relief coming to Indian Country with passage of bipartisan legislation (March 26, 2020)
Tribes face great need and don't have enough resources to respond to the coronavirus pandemic (March 26, 2020)
Rep. Tom Cole: Fighting an invisible enemy in the #Coronavirus (March 25, 2020)
Rep. Markwayne Mullin: Resources for those impacted by #COVID19 (March 25, 2020)
Indian Health Service works to distribute more coronavirus funding to tribes as cases continue to grow (March 24, 2020)
Kevin Abourezk: Indian Country can't be left behind in coronavirus crisis (March 24, 2020)
Cronkite News: Republicans and Democrats feud over #coronavirus stimulus (March 24, 2020)
Urban Indian couple helps community amid coronavirus crisis (March 23, 2020)
Trump administration moves slowly on coronavirus funding for Indian Country (March 23, 2020)
PHOTOS: Lakota man helps fight the coronavirus (March 22, 2020
Montana Free Press: Neighboring counties ask Yellowstone National Park to close (March 23, 2020)
Chuck Hoskin: Safety and health are priority for Cherokee Nation (March 20, 2020)
'Lives are at risk': Coronavirus cases continue to grow in Indian Country as tribes push for action in Washington (March 19, 2020)
COVID-19 in Indian Country: Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas) goes into self-quarantine (March 19, 2020)
COVID-19 in Indian Country: Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) goes into self-quarantine (March 19, 2020)
Doug George-Kanentiio: How the Mohawks responded to historical plagues (March 19, 2020)
Rep. Tom Cole: Flatten the #Coronavirus curve (March 19, 2020)
Rep. Markwayne Mullin: Do your part to flatten the #COVID19 curve (March 19, 2020)
Cronkite News: COVID-19 relief bill clears Congress as lawmakers prepare new package (March 19, 2020)
David Korten: Why coronavirus is humanity's wakeup call (March 19, 2020)
Indian Country plunges into uncertainty as coronavirus reaches their communities (March 18, 2020)
'The fight is here and now': Sacred site debate returns to nation's capital amid familiar challenges (March 12, 2020)
'We are staying on top of it': Oglala Sioux Tribe declares coronavirus emergency (March 11, 2020)
Tribes test Trump administration's commitment with coronavirus crisis (March 9, 2020)
United South and Eastern Tribes cancel D.C. meeting over coronavirus concerns (March 9, 2020)
Indian Country Today: Some say go while others say no after COVID-19 disruption (March 6, 2020)
NIGA keeps close watch on coronavirus ahead of annual convention (March 6, 2020)
Indian Health Service nominee in limbo amid another high-profile crisis (March 5, 2020)
Umatilla Tribes reopen casino after addressing coronavirus (March 5, 2020)
Indian Country Today: Warnings for tribes as coronavirus spreads (March 3, 2020)
Umatilla Tribes shut down casino and takes precautions as coronavirus hits Indian Country (March 2, 2020)
Rep. Tom Cole: Ready to combat coronavirus (February 19, 2020)
Indian Country Today: Risk from virus called 'very low' by health officials (January 29, 2020)
Trending in News
More Headlines