Tribes sue over distribution of coronavirus relief funding

Mike Williams Sr., senior chief of the Akiak Native Community photographed in 2016. Williams has said that tribes, not corporations, should receive government relief. (Katie Basile / KYUK) (Katie Basile/KYUK)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Several Native American tribes sued the federal government Friday, seeking to keep any of the $8 billion in federal coronavirus relief for tribes kept out of the hands of for-profit Alaska Native corporations.

The U.S. Treasury Department is tasked with doling out the money by April 26 to help tribes nationwide stay afloat, respond to the virus and recover after having to shut down casinos, tourism operations and other businesses that serve as their main moneymakers.

RELATED: Tribes want to exclude Alaska Native Corporations from $8 billion coronavirus fund

The Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation and the Tulalip Tribes in Washington state, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians in Maine, and the Akiak Native Community, Asa’carsarmiut Tribe and Aleut Community of St. Paul Island in Alaska filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Treasury Department, named as the defendant, did not immediately return an email seeking comment.

Already, tribes had raised questions about the distribution of the funding.

“It is what Indian Country will rely on to start up again,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “And Congress surely didn’t intend to put tribal governments, which are providing health care, education, jobs, job training, and all sorts of programs, to compete against these Alaska corporate interests, which looks like a cash grab.”

The Interior Department, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said Alaska Native corporations are eligible for the funding, pointing to a definition that includes them as an “Indian Tribe” in the federal bill. The corporations are unique to Alaska and own most Native lands in the state under a 1971 settlement but are not tribal governments.

Tribes argue that the Interior Department has taken a limited view of the definition and that Congress intended for the money to go to the country’s 574 federally recognized tribes that have a government-to-government relationship with the U.S.

The Treasury Department posted a form online Monday for tribes to submit information to get funding, including their land base, number of tribal citizens, corporate shareholders, employees and spending. The deadline to respond is Friday.

It’s unclear how the agency will decide which tribe gets what.

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