Sullivan defends inclusion of Alaska Native Corporations in CARES Act funding

Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan addressing AFN at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center on Oct. 20, 2018. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)(Photo

Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan is defending Alaska Native Corporations benefiting from the $2.2 trillion CARES ACT. The for-profit corporations created under ANCSA are eligible for a share of the $8 billion in funding set aside for Native American tribes. That’s led to some heated opposition in Alaska, the Lower 48 and on Capitol Hill.

During a live call-in to Kotzebue’s public radio station, KOTZ on Monday, Sullivan described opening the CARES ACT up to Native Corporations as a win for Alaska.  

“And we were glad to get that in there because it would mean more resources to Alaska,” he said. “Not just for Alaska tribes, but our regional and village corporations. We thought that was very important, and we thought it was, to be perfectly honest… we thought it was non-controversial.”

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

But the move has proven controversial, especially among tribal governments both in Alaska and in the Lower 48. Some say they’re upset that for-profit Alaska Native Corporations, which are structured much differently than sovereign tribal governments, will also be entitled to that funding. So far, three Alaska tribes have even joined a lawsuit against the Treasury Department to block the funding. It states that the companies “which conduct business worldwide through dozens of subsidiaries, are not ‘Tribal governments.’” 

Sullivan said he isn’t familiar with the brewing legal fight, but says that because Native corporations provide socially and economically for their shareholders, they are entitled to the funding. 

“The tribal governments have sovereignty and we certainly respect that and want to help all tribes,” he said. “But the Alaska Native corporations also have an important and very unique role and in many ways are delivering help to all parts of our state on behalf of Alaska Native people.”

In an op-ed to Indian Country Today, several executives from regional Native corporations echoed Sullivan’s sentiment, stating “the CARES Act is unambiguous: Alaska Native villages, Alaska Native regional corporations, and Alaska Native village corporations are ‘tribes’ under the law.”

Sullivan also accused Lower 48 tribes — which have business interests of their own — of hypocrisy. 

“It’s a little bit, I would say, rich to have some of these Lower 48 tribes that have huge billion-dollar casino operations, that are clearly for profit, somehow attacking Alaska Native regional and village corporations,” Sullivan said. “It’s a little ironic, nobody’s talking about that.”

Though while money could go to tribes that operate casinos, it would not go directly to the businesses, unlike how the CARES Act has positioned for-profit Native corporations to receive stimulus funds.

Opposing tribes also have taken aim at Tara Sweeney, the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs with the Interior Department. Several tribes have accused Sweeney, who is a former executive and current shareholder with Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, of putting Alaska Native corporations ahead of other tribes. Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer of New York, a Democrat, joined in criticism of Sweeney, stating in a tweet that by giving money to Alaska Native Corporations, Sweeney seeks to profit. 

Sullivan took offense to Schumer’s comments, stating in a POLITICO interview that the concerns were a “bunch of bulls–t.” He says Schumer and other critics are ill-informed.  

“Some of the people attacking Tara hadn’t even read the law, because if you read the CARES Act, it’s 110 percent clear that some of these funds will go to Alaska tribes and our village and regional corporation shareholders,” Sullivan said. “Again, not to enrich anyone, but to help them deal with the negative impacts of the pandemic.”

Sullivan says the money set aside for tribes is set to complete disbursement by April 26.