Diverting Tribal COVID-19 Relief Funds into For-Profit Corporations

Photo: Alaska Wilderness League
Photo: Alaska Wilderness League
Photo: Alaska Wilderness League. www.alaskawild.org

In an unprecedented demonstration of unity, Native nations and tribes across the United States are taking measures to prevent the US government from misappropriating funds meant for COVID-19 emergency relief. Six tribal governments from Washington state, Maine, and Alaska teamed up in a lawsuit against the US Department of Treasury to prevent losing the $8 billion that were allocated exclusively for Native tribes by Congress under the CARES Act.

All hell broke loose earlier this week when the Treasury Department opened the online portal for tribes to apply for relief funds desperately needed to tackle the COVID-19 emergency, only to find out that the Trump administration was using it to misappropriate their relief fund. According to coverage by Indianz.com, language was introduced in the application to allow “Alaska Native Regional Corporations” to apply for relief that is meant exclusively for tribal governments. Such a move would mean losing at least half of the funds meant to be used for servicing Native populations.

It’s colonialism at its worst, but Native nations refuse to be ransacked. “It’s robbery happening in broad daylight,” said Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. of the Cherokee Nation in an interview with Indianz.Com.

Maria Sháa Tláa Williams, director of the Alaska Native Studies Program at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, writes on Alaska Native Reader: History, Culture, Politics about the colonial roots of Alaska Native Regional Corporations. In order to fully control indigenous tribal lands in this oil-rich part of the continent, Congress signed in 1971 the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) to abolish aboriginal land titles and transform them into 13 for-profit corporations.

Facing ethnocide, a few native leaders agreed to hand all land into private hands in exchange for basic social services and making Alaskan Natives ANCSA “shareholders.” Alaskan Natives are not allowed to sell nor trade their stock but can only “gift, will, or bequeathed” them and receive a small dividend of $300 and $3,700 (per 100 shares).

Moreover, Dr. Williams writes that ANCSA was not legitimately negotiated with tribal governments, nor given prior consent by the Native population. “ANCSA extinguished previously recognized Indian reservations in Alaska…hunting and fishing rights, and paved the way for the oil industry and state government to access and transport oil from Northern Alaska.”

Since then, the federal government was pressured to recognize 229 Indian tribes in Alaska, with more than 13 thousand members, although their land effectively is still owned by ANCSA’s corporations.

According to the lawsuit filed April 17 by the six tribal governments, the US Department of Treasury is diverting CARE funds meant for tribal governments and emergency relief to essentially bail out the now 230 for-profit corporations in Alaska hurting from low oil prices. The Center for American Progress called just one of the 13 original Alaska Native Regional Corporations the “most powerful arctic lobby you’ve never heard of.” With a whopping revenue of $2.5 billion, the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. (ASRC) is one of the largest private landowners in Alaska, with 5 million acres, and instrumental in lobbying Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling, signed into law by Trump in December 2017.

All Native organizations show an unprecedented spirit of unity and leadership to write a collective letter to the Departments of Interior and Treasury to demand COVID-19 emergency relief funds are disbursed exclusively to tribal governments. They are alerting tribal members and the public in general of the Trump’s administration’s attempt to redefine Alaska Native Regional Corporations under ANCSA as a “recognized governing body of an Indian tribe,” essentially trying to establish private corporations in Alaska as governmental entities.

The letter further reads:

Alaska Native Corporations are not on the List of Federally Recognized Indian Tribes…As such,Treasury should limit its application only to those entities with recognized governing bodies, made up of elected or appointed tribal leaders [including Alaskan Native villages]…In conclusion, each of the undersigned organizations are committed to preventing a grave injustice and stand prepared to ensure that the CRF is distributed in manner consistent with the intent of Congress as an expression of their understanding and respect for Tribal sovereignty. Our ancestors that came before us would not have it any other way.

[pdf-embedder url=”https://greennetworkproject.org/wp-content/uploads/indiancountry041620.pdf”]

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Sofía Jarrín

Sofía Jarrín

Co-founder and co-editor, Awasqa.

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