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Judge sides with Alaska Native corporations in dispute with tribes over $8 billion federal aid program

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A federal judge on Friday ruled that Alaska Native corporations are eligible to share in the $8 billion aid package Congress provided to tribes to combat the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decision is a loss for a group of tribes, including some in Alaska, that sued in April. They argued that the for-profit corporations do not meet the definition of “Indian tribe” in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, approved by Congress in March.

The tribes had challenged Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who determined that the Native corporations are eligible for $162 million.

“... The court now holds that ANCs are ‘Indian Tribes,' and that their boards of directors are ‘Tribal governments,' for purposes of the CARES Act,” Amit Mehta, a U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C., wrote in a 36-page opinion.

“Accordingly, ANCs are eligible to receive Title V funds,” he wrote.

The Treasury Department in May began distributing the money to tribal governments. But Mehta had put a temporary hold on distributions to Native corporations as the case proceeded.

Groups representing regional and village Native corporations expressed support for the decision in a statement.

“This disaster assistance will provide immediate support to Alaska’s rural communities suffering from COVID-19 and help repair the economic damage caused by the pandemic,” the ANCSA Regional Association and Alaska Native Village Corporation Association said in a statement.

“We look forward to working together with other Native organizations to solve the problems and challenges brought on by COVID-19,” the associations said. “We continue to believe that when Indian Country, Alaska Native corporations and villages, and Native Hawaiian organizations align as one, our ability to serve our people is powerful.”

The Alaska Federation of Natives in a statement Friday applauded Mehta’s decision.

“Alaska has a unique history of tribal self-governance and Native self-determination,” Julie Kitka, president of AFN, said in the statement. “Our people have never understood these concepts to be mutually exclusive.”

Three tribes from Alaska — the Akiak Native Community, Asa’carsarmiut Tribe in Mountain Village and Aleut Community of St. Paul Island — joined Lower 48 tribes in filing the lawsuit in April.

Mike Williams, chief of the Akiak tribal government, said Friday that the tribes will appeal the decision.

“We have to protect our tribal governments,” he said. “If we allow the businesses to act like governments and start getting our funding, it will be a bad precedent.”

Several Native corporations, the Native corporation associations and additional tribes were allowed to join in the lawsuit.

Congress in 1971 approved legislation leading to the creation of 13 Alaska Native regional corporations and about 200 village corporations. Alaska is home to 229 tribal governments, more than one-third of the U.S. total.

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