Native American Tribes File Suit Against U.S. Treasury Over $8 Billion in Coronavirus Relief to Keep Money From Going to Corporations

Some Native American tribes whose livelihoods have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic filed suit against the U.S. Treasury on Friday in an attempt to ensure that $8 billion in relief funds would go directly to tribal governments and not to Alaska Native corporations. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was named in the legal documents as the defendant.

Six tribes filed the suit jointly, 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 and the Asa'carsarmiut Tribe of Alaska were also named as plaintiffs, as was Maine's Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians.

Plaintiffs in the suit contend that Alaska Native corporations are not eligible for money that has been designated to go to tribal governments because they are for-profit "state-chartered and state-regulated private business corporations."

However, those corporations have been given the same legal status as tribal governments by the federal government which, according to the lawsuit, "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."

Newsweek reached out to the U.S. Treasury for comment.

Washington's Tulalip Tribes placed their reservation under a stay-at-home emergency order after coronavirus cases were confirmed nearby. All non-essential businesses were closed, including casinos, as were the tribe's governmental offices. According to the lawsuit, "the closure of these enterprises has almost entirely eliminated Tulalip's tax base and other revenue streams, which fund essential government services and employee salaries."

"The notion that corporations incorporated under state law should be considered Tribal governments is shocking and will come at the expense of tribal governments, who are responsible for providing critical needs such as healthcare, housing, and education to their citizens," said Chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes Teri Gobin in a Friday statement. "We are struggling right now because we have no revenue coming in, and it's going to take years to recover."

steven mnuchin
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was named as defendant Friday in a lawsuit filed by several Native American tribes concerning the disbursement of coronavirus relief funds. Drew Angerer/Getty

Alaska Native corporations came into existence in 1971 after Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act which sectioned the state into 12 regions. Corporations were set up in those regions to purchase land and initiate business enterprises including forestry, mining, oil drilling and salmon fishery.

According to the Alaska Resource Development Council website, these corporations own 44 million acres of land in Alaska.

"We are opposed to any effort to consider Alaska Native Corporations or other entities not on the list of federally recognized Indian tribes as a 'Tribal government' under the CARES Act relief fund," Harry Pickernell, Sr., Chairman of the Chehalis Tribe said Friday. "We do, however, fully support the ability of Tribal governments to transfer any relief funds that they receive from Treasury to [Alaska Native corporations] or other non-governmental entities if those Tribal governments determine that is in their best interest."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday that Tara Sweeney, Assistant Director for Indian Affairs for the U.S. Department of the Interior, was trying to funnel more money towards Alaska Native corporations and away from tribal governments.

"Pres. Trump's @ASIndianAffairs Tara Sweeney is diverting funds for tribal governments during coronavirus to for-profit Alaska Native Corporations," Schumer tweeted. "We can't put these corporations before tribal governments & people. Sweeney used to be an exec for an ANC, and she wants to profit!"

Pres. Trump’s @ASIndianAffairs Tara Sweeney is diverting funds for tribal governments during coronavirus to for-profit Alaska Native Corporations.

We can't put these corporations before tribal governments & people.

Sweeney used to be an exec for an ANC, and she wants to profit!

— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) April 16, 2020

In a Thursday statement, the Department of the Interior defended Sweeney. "To suggest she has personal motives or that she is attempting to divert funds away from American Indians is completely false," the statement said. "Her approach has always been focused on inclusiveness, transparency and partnerships."