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Supreme Court Says Alaska Natives Should Get COVID-19 Aid

June 25, 2021 by Dan McCue
A scene from a recent Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Fairbanks, Alaska. (Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Friday that millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief aid tied up in court for months, rightfully should be given to Alaska Natives rather than tribes in other parts of the country.

The case cast a spotlight on a little known difference between how tribes and Alaska natives are defined by the United States.

Unlike in the lower 48 states, Alaska Native tribes aren’t situated on reservations. Instead, Native land is owned by for-profit Alaska Native corporations created under a 1971 law. 

Instead of being members of a sovereign nation, Alaska Natives own shares in the corporations, which provide a range of services from healthcare to housing assistance.

The underlying case stemmed from a dispute over whether $8 billion earmarked for “tribal governments” in the successive COVID-19 relief bill should be shared with the Alaska corporations.

The federal government had set aside more than $530 million for Alaska Native corporations under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

Three groups of Native American tribes from other parts of the United States sued in federal court in Washington in April 2020 seeking to prevent Alaska Native corporations from receiving any of the funds. 

Among the challengers were the Navajo Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

The Biden administration said as far as it is concerned the corporations should be treated as Indian tribes and that doing differently would be a dramatic departure from the status quo.

On Friday, the court agreed.

“The Court today affirms what the Federal Government has maintained for almost half a century: ANCs are Indian tribes,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor for a 6-3 majority that included both liberal and conservative members of the court.

Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch were joined by liberal Justice Elena Kagan in dissent.

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