During the global pandemic a century ago, the 1918 Spanish flu, more people died per capita in Alaska than almost anywhere else in the world. Native elders still tell of entire villages getting wiped out. Our state has to use every tool available to respond to this pandemic because the barriers to providing care and preventing outbreaks are daunting.
Alaska is larger than 177 nations. If it were a country, it would be in the top 20 by landmass. There are more than 200 remote, predominantly Native, communities across the state but no roads connect them. The size, remoteness, and diversity bring immense challenges, and we work to educate our colleagues and the rest of the country about Alaska every day.
When the CDC told Americans to wash their hands, we pointed out there are still many communities in Alaska that do not have running water. Practice social distancing? Impossible given overcrowded housing in many villages. Online classes? Tough when the only place in the community with internet access is the currently closed school. Alaska is simply different and we typically take stereotypes in stride, but the recent attacks on Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) demand a response.
Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), and included $8 billion for tribes within the $150 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund. The Alaska delegation fought hard to ensure all tribes were included in the final bill recognizing the need across the whole country. But we also made sure the final bill acknowledged the complex landscape of governance, land ownership, roles and relationships in our state.
In the 1970s, federal Indian policy was changing. Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which established Alaska Native Corporations throughout the state, limited their membership, prohibited the sale of shares, and gave them a social mission. ANCs have a legal mandate to support Alaska Native shareholders economically, culturally, and socially. Concurrently, tribes throughout the nation, including in Alaska, have grown through the recognition of Indian self-determination, which also emerged in the 1970s.
The unique arrangement Congress created in Alaska has confused some, leading to everything from mischaracterizations to baseless personal attacks. Alaska’s tribes have sovereign status, while ANCs own the millions of acres of land from the 1970s Native land claims settlement. Combined, Alaska tribes, their consortia, and ANCs represent the full set of interests of Alaska Natives.
This week, we heard concerns that relief funds will be used as a so-called corporate bailout for ANCs. This is a blatant misrepresentation of, the CARES Act, which specifically limits payments to: necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency, costs that were not accounted for in their recent budget, and costs incurred from March 1 to December 30, 2020.
The relief fund is not meant to offset ANCs’ corporate losses, just as it is not meant to offset gaming losses that may be incurred by Lower 48 tribally owned casinos. To the extent ANCs make expenditures to respond to the public health emergency, it is only fair they be able to access relief funds.
As a delegation that has worked to empower tribes, we understand the importance of sovereignty and self-governance. But this is not about governance; it is about response. Congress included the broad, typically used, 45-year-old definition of “Indian tribe” in the CARES Act so every Alaska Native entity would be able to expend the available resources necessary to meet this unprecedented public health crisis — including ANCs. The CARES Act is unequivocal on this point.
This is perfectly appropriate because ANCs are responding to the crisis alongside tribes. ANCs are backfilling funding for tribal social service programs, helping with Native elder meal delivery, and providing burial assistance. One ANC has given funds to 19 tribes to assist with immediate COVID-19 needs. ANCs have also assisted in shipping and providing groceries where transportation has stopped due to our lack of air and ferry services. One ANC created a temporary camp with 48 beds to house those who cannot return to their villages due to travel restrictions. Others have sent out critical community response kits to villages with cleaners, masks, and other emergency supplies to stop the spread of the disease.
It is sad that while Alaskans are looking past labels and working together to respond to the crisis, some have latched onto the word “corporation” and are ignoring both law and history to try to exclude ANCs. The law is as clear as the need. Alaska Natives must have the option to use all the vehicles available to tribal communities, which in Alaska is a mix of tribes, tribal consortia, and ANCs, to implement this fund and respond to the crisis at hand.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, along with Rep. Don Young, make up Alaska’s Congressional delegation in Washington, D.C.
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