(AP) — The Supreme Court
ruled Friday that hundreds of millions of dollars in coronavirus relief
funds that have been frozen in court should go to Alaska
Natives rather than being distributed more broadly among Native American tribes across the country.
The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the massive pandemic
relief package passed last year and signed into law by then-President Donald Trump
, which included $8 billion in funding for “Tribal governments” to cover pandemic-related expenses.
The court was asked whether Alaska Native corporations, which are for-profit businesses that provide benefits and social services to more than 100,000 Alaska Natives, counted as “Indian tribes,” and the answer was yes.
“The Court today affirms what the Federal Government has maintained for nearly half a century: ANCs are Indian tribes,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor for a group of both liberal and conservative court members.
The case is significant not only because of the amount of money
at stake, but also because Native Americans
and Alaska Natives have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Both the Trump and Biden
administrations agreed that the corporations should be treated as Indian tribes, and that anything else would be a dramatic departure from the status quo.
Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security
Act, the federal government had set aside more than $530 million for Alaska Native corporations.
However, after the CARES Act
was passed, three groups of Native American tribes filed a lawsuit
to prevent payments to Alaska Native corporations, arguing that under the law's language, only federally recognized tribes qualify for the aid, while Alaska Native corporations do not because they are not sovereign governments like tribes.
Part of the issue for the court was that Alaska is unique in that, unlike the lower 48 states
, Alaska Native tribes are not located on reservations. Instead, Native land is owned by Alaska Native corporations established under a 1971 law, which run oil
, mining, and other enterprises. Alaska Natives own shares in the corporations, which provide a variety of services ranging from healthcare to education