Supreme Court Sides with Alaska Natives in COVID-19 Fund Dispute

Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) are eligible for approximately $450 million of the COVID-19 relief funds that Congress allocated to Tribal governments, the Supreme Court ruled on Friday. 

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act was passed by Congress in March 2020, granting $8 billion to Tribal governments under the law’s Title V. According to guidelines released by the Department of the Treasury shortly thereafter, ANCs, which were created by Congress in 1971 to settle land and financial claims by Alaska natives, are eligible for funding. However, a number of federally recognized tribes sued the Secretary of the Treasury, arguing that ANCs are not Indian tribes, and the district court entered a preliminary injunction prohibiting the Treasury from disbursing Title V funds to ANCs, court documents state. 

In response, the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association Inc. filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari in October 2020, claiming that the decision to discount ANCs as tribes “upends the long-settled legal landscape and shatters the basic infrastructure of Native life in Alaska. It creates a clear and acknowledged conflict with the Ninth Circuit, rejects over 40 years of administrative practice, and disrupts the distribution of critical benefits to Alaska Natives, including healthcare and other services most needed in a pandemic.”

The CARES Act defines a “Tribal government” as the “‘recognized governing body of an Indian tribe’” as defined in the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. In turn, the ISDA defines an “Indian tribe” as “‘any Indian tribe, band, nation, or other organized group or community, including any Alaska Native village or regional or village corporation as defined in or established pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act…which is recognized as eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to Indians because of their status as Indians,’” court documents state. 

The Supreme Court held that ANCs are in fact “Indian tribes” under ISDA. 

“Under the plain meaning of ISDA, ANCs are Indian tribes, regardless of whether they are also federally recognized tribes…ANCs are sui generis entities created by federal statute and granted an enormous amount of special federal benefits as part of a legislative experiment tailored to the unique circumstances of Alaska and recreated nowhere else. Moreover, with the exception of Alaska Native villages (which are now federally recognized), no entities other than ANCs are expressly ‘includ[ed]’ by name in ISDA’s ‘Indian tribe’ definition,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the Supreme Court opinion. 

Justice Neil Gorsuch filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Clarence Thomas and Elena Kagan joined.