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Lower 48 tribal leaders angry that Alaska Native corporations will share in coronavirus relief funds for tribes

  • Author: Joaqlin Estus, Indian Country Today
  • Updated: April 15
  • Published April 15

Tara Sweeney, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, spoke during the AFN Convention in the Dena'ina Center on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. (Bill Roth / ADN)

This article originally appeared at Indian Country Today and is republished here with permission.

A group of tribal leaders from North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska is calling for the removal of Tara Sweeney from the position of assistant secretary of Indian Affairs in the Interior Department over the inclusion of Alaska Native corporations in emergency money for tribes.

The Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association contends Alaska Native corporations are not tribes and should not be allotted any of the $8 billion set aside for them by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. The association is made up of more than a dozen tribal chairmen and presidents from 16 tribes.

In a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, the tribal association’s chairman, Harold Frazier, Cheyenne River Sioux, and vice chairman, Harold Robert Flying Hawk, Yankton Sioux, wrote:

“She (Sweeney) has lost the confidence of Indian tribes. Charged with a large public trust, she unfairly sought to divert emergency Tribal Government resources to state-chartered for-profit corporations owned by Alaska Native shareholders, including her and her family,” the letter stated. “She seeks to deny the very existence of Indian country.”

The chairmen said that Sweeney is “clearly an interested party.” The letter said when she was testifying in her confirmation hearing, she said: "For those who may fear that I am too Alaskan-centric or I don’t have any Lower 48 experience, I want to dispel that myth.”

“Not true,” said the chairmen's group. "She's working to pull a money grab" for the Alaska Native corporations.

Sweeney, Inupiaq, is the former vice president of the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., a for-profit company created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Arctic Slope is the wealthiest of the 12 existing regional Native corporations, with $3 billion in annual revenues from oil and gas-related assets in 2018.

A spokesperson for the Department of Interior said the agency is following the law.

"Assistant Secretary Sweeney is committed to supporting all American Indian and Alaska Natives, and to suggest she has personal motives or that she is attempting to divert funds away from American Indians is completely false. Her approach has always been focused on inclusiveness, transparency and partnerships," he wrote. "It is unfortunate that during a time of historic appropriations for the Native American community, some are seeking to divide the community and are suggesting we ignore the mandate of Congress and exclude eligible entities as defined by law," their statement said.

The Department of Interior said: "Assistant Secretary Sweeney is dutifully following the law set forth in the CARES Act, passed by an overwhelming bi-partisan majority, which provides $8 billion in financial assistance to tribal governments and specifically includes ‘Alaska regional or village corporations as defined in or established pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.'

"Since day one of the COVID-19 pandemic, Assistant Secretary Sweeney and Indian Affairs have been working with the Tribes to assist Tribal communities to ensure they have the resources they need to combat this virus and their voices are heard. One example of her commitment to inclusiveness and building partnerships is a meeting held with the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association Inc. leaders on Monday April 13, where she listened to each of the leaders’ concerns and addressed their questions,” their statement said.

However U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, had a very different interpretation of the law and congressional intent.

In a letter to Treasury and Interior Udall said Congress intended the fund to be used for tribal governments. "Title V of the CARES Act limits eligibility for the Tribal portion of the CRF specifically to Tribal governments to ensure parity between states, territories, and Tribes," the senator wrote.

"The Fund must allow Tribes to continue operation of essential Tribal programs – including both safety-net public service programs and Tribally-owned business entities that generate operating funds for Tribal governments – that are strained by increased COVID-19 demands or COVID-19-caused revenue decreases," Udall said.

Udall also dismissed the consultation process itself. "The rapid consultation efforts undertaken by your Departments to date show that you understand the importance of these principles. But consultation can only truly be meaningful when a Department reflects the Tribal views received in its policy making," he wrote. "Unfortunately, after reviewing Treasury’s April 13th notice announcing the CRF Tribal Certification form, I fear your Departments failed on both counts."

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe, in its letter to the two departments, said that trust lands ought to be appropriately counted. “She doesn’t want to count reservations, but she wants to count 45 Million acres” of corporate fee land, wrote President Rodney Bordeaux, Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

The Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association is raising similar objections, saying when it comes to the 56 million acres of Indian Country in the Lower 48, “she is excluding millions of acres of Indian reservation and allotted trust lands — turning the Supreme Court’s rulings on their head. Except to line ANC pockets, there is no sense to it,” the letter states.

The CARES Act uses the definition of tribes set out in another law, the Indian Self-Determination Act, which includes Native corporations. In addition to Alaska’s 12 regional corporations, 200 village corporations are also eligible for funds from the same $8 billion pot as 574 federally recognized tribes, including 229 Alaska Native villages’ governments.

The group also says that when Sweeney was being considered for the job, she promised to recuse herself from decisions about Alaska Native corporations.

By treaty and extensive legal precedents, tribal lands are protected under federal law and not subject to taxation. Alaska Native corporations have fee simple title; they own their lands outright. The guidelines allow lands owned by the corporations — but not reservation and trust land owned by tribes — to be considered in decisions about how much money is allotted.

The vast majority of tribal land in the United States, some 56 million acres, is trust land.

The heads of four Alaska Native regional corporations didn’t address the issues raised by the Great Plains tribes but came out with a strong vote of support for Sweeney.

Bering Straits Native Corp. President and CEO Gail Schubert, CIRI President and CEO Sophie Minich, Chugach Alaska Corporation board chairman Sheri Buretta, and Koniag president Shauna Hegna praised Sweeney, saying, “Her abilities, intellect and desire to serve our people is unparalleled.”

“We stand behind her decisions not out of regional loyalty or bias, but out of respect and admiration for the valuable work she has done in advocating for indigenous peoples across the country.”

The Native corporate leaders noted Sweeney is only the second woman to hold the assistant secretary position and the first Alaska Native. “In no way do we think it is good for Indian Country or for our nation for her to resign. In fact, we encourage her to keep doing what she has always done, make thoughtful, well-reasoned decisions that help Indian Country,” the authors wrote.

They said indigenous people gain strength by standing together. “When Indian Country, Alaska Native corporations and tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations align as one, our ability to serve our people is powerful,” they stated. “When we publicly bicker and attack a long-time tribal advocate in a time of crisis, the benefit comes not to our tribes and our people, but to those who oppose our traditions, self-determination and economic opportunity.

“We stand with you, Tara,” wrote the four Alaska Native corporate leaders.

The National Congress of American Indians wrote a letter Saturday objecting to the inclusion of the corporations.

The association said Sweeney is attempting to count Alaska Natives three times — as “tribal members, Village Corporate shareholders, and Regional Corporate shareholders, including her and her family.”

Also Tuesday, Udall, who serves as vice chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, sent a letter to Mnuchin and Bernhardt clarifying Congress’ intent regarding distribution of the $8 billion.

The CARES Act limits eligibility for the money “specifically to Tribal governments” to ensure parity between states, territories and tribes, Udall wrote. “Non-governmental Tribal entities may well warrant relief under other CARES Act programs, but this funding in this title was intended for Tribal governments and should not be diverted.”

Federally recognized tribes have a government-to-government relationship with the United States. They possess inherent rights of self-governance, or tribal sovereignty. As tribes, they’re entitled to certain benefits, services, and protections. Each tribe determines its own membership, which generally is based on lineal descendancy from an enrolled member of the tribe.

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