Winners, Losers and $8 Billion is not Enough

Mark Trahant*

Republished with author's permission from Indian Country Today, April 13, 2020,

How does the federal government divide billions among 574 tribal nations?

The Trump administration picked winners and losers in Indian Country Monday. Alaska Native corporations and village corporations will be treated as governments when it comes to dispersing the $8 billion Tribal Government Relief Fund.

And one loser is the notion of per capita equity because when it comes to a tribal citizen living on the Navajo Nation or in South Dakota, there will be fewer options. Alaska Native corporations, including village corporations and regional for-profit companies, will seek the same money from the legislation in the fund set aside for tribal governments.

“Today, the U.S. Department of the Treasury launched a web portal to allow eligible State, local, and tribal governments to receive payments to help offset the costs of their response to the coronavirus pandemic,” reported the Treasury department in a news release. It said that it will fast-track $71 billion worth of funding to meet “immediate cash flow needs.”

The balance of funds, including the money for tribal governments, will be paid out by April 24. The deadline for applications is fast too, April 17th, under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or CARES act.

“Our State, local, and tribal partners across the country are facing unique challenges as they navigate the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic,” said Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin. “As part of our whole-of-government approach, we have moved with unprecedented speed to get these funds to those who need them a week ahead of schedule.”

Many tribes and tribal organizations objected to the inclusion of Alaska Native corporations as governments. They said it was improper for Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney to be involved in the decision-making because she was a vice president for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation before taking the Interior Department post. Another senior official at Interior had been Alaska’s attorney general.

(Related story: " The COVID-19 hit to Indian Country is nearly $50 billion,", summarized above in Economic Developments).

Twelve regional Alaska Native Corporations and 270 village corporations could be included in the fund under a plan devised by the departments of the Interior and Treasury. The corporations have shareholders and are structured as for-profit ventures. There are 574 federally recognized tribes, including those in Alaska.

“Indian Country became aware that Interior was considering including Alaska Native corporations the Friday before Easter, and due on Monday, shows how little consultation there was,” said Jonodev Chaudhuri, Creek Nation, and former chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission. He is an attorney with Quarles & Brady LLP. “They are not tribal governments, and many of their shareholders are also members of federally [recognized] tribes.”

Many Alaska Native corporations typically have contractual relationships with tribal governments in Alaska, but the corporations themselves are not governments.

And, he added, in some cases, tribal members own shares in multiple corporations and in other cases non-tribal members are Alaska Native corporate shareholders.

Chaudhuri had worked on Alaska Native issues for the Interior Department in the Obama administration. He said tribes recognize the importance of Alaska corporations, but “almost by definition” there is double and triple dipping because tribal members may be shareholders of a village corporation as well as a regional corporation and will be receiving benefits from this payout.

The bigger problem Chaudhuri said is that the federal government is stabilizing the economic activity in Indian Country. The first estimate was about $20 billion, but research Monday by the Harvard Economic Project on American Indian Economic Development pegged the costs just under $50 billion.

National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp, Quinault Nation, spoke to Indian Country Today for its daily newscast. “How do we divide a billion dollars among 574 tribal nations? That's the first question. The second is, what can those funds be used for? Many of our tribal nations are facing tremendous economic fallout as a direct result of having to close our resorts in our casinos.”

Tribes often used those “profits” to fund essential governmental programs, such as health care, she said. “Everybody recognizes that the legislation up to this point has been a first step” and that much more will be needed.

“It's basically crumbs off of a table, the need that we have immediately just for some of our economic losses, we're estimating at this early stage to be about $40 billion,” Sharp said.

The biggest concern with adding Alaska Native corporation is how much that will shrink the available pool of dollars. Sharp said it would be better for the corporations to work with tribes “and engage just as they do without the pandemic … in coordination with tribal governments.”

The Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes said including Alaska Native corporations does not match Congress’ intent. The money was supposed to “direct funds to “entities providing governmental services … not for- profit, state-chartered, individually owned corporations.”

The council said other provisions of the CARES act would be better suited for Alaska Native corporations, “funding opportunities for which tribal governments are not eligible.”

The Inter-Tribal Council letter was signed by the elected leaders of the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, Seminole and Choctaw governments.

Indian Country Today reached out to several Alaska Native corporations and did not get a response.

*Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports .


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