This article originally appeared on Alaska Public Media.
Congress allocated $8 billion for tribes in its $2.2 trillion coronavirus response bill. Alaska’s Congressional delegation says the CARES Act clearly says Alaska Native Corporations are eligible for that money, too.
But some tribal leaders, both in the lower 48 and in Alaska, say the law is not so clear, and they say the corporations should not be included.
Mike Williams Sr., chief of the Akiak Native Community, says the $8 billion is in a section of the CARES Act that’s intended for governments: state, local, and tribal.
“I come from the poorest economic area in the United States,” said Williams Sr., “and when we’re struggling for every bit of a dollar to provide these services, I think we need to have the maximum amount of support for each tribe to battle this COVID-19.”
Williams Sr. said that his tribe will incur expenses of at least $1 million to keep his Kuskokwim River village of 400 safe.
Akiak leaders are trying to increase the working hours of tribal police officers and health aides. They need masks and hand sanitizer. They need laptops so tribal staff can work from home. They’ve waived every household’s $105 sewer and water bill so that people can keep clean, even those that can’t afford it. Williams Sr. said that they’re also refurbishing two houses in case they need to isolate sick people.
“We’ve dealt with the Spanish Flu in 1918 around here, and there were mass deaths,” he said. “And we don’t want to ever see that again.”
The Native corporations don’t have governmental responsibilities, Williams Sr. said. They are for-profit companies that benefit Alaska Native shareholders. Williams Sr. said that they should get money from other parts of the CARES Act that are set aside to help businesses. Decisions about how the money will be allocated are up to the Treasury Department, after consultation with the tribes and the Interior Department.
Some tribes are directing their anger at Assistant Interior Secretary Tara Sweeney, a former executive of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. A spokeswoman for the Interior Department said Sweeney is not trying to divert money from any American Indians or Alaska Natives.