Alaska Native Corporations Are Considered Indian Tribes Under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act
July 14, 2021
By Heidi McNeil Staudenmaier and Kelsey Haake1
On June 25, in a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court held that Alaska Native Corporations (“ANCs”), are entitled to COVID-19 relief funds; solidifying that ANCs qualify as tribes. The ruling in Yellen v. Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation now allows ANCs to receive funding under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act. In this ruling, SCOTUS reversed a unanimous Washington D.C. Circuit panel that initially sided with the tribes and against ANCs.
Justice Sotomayor, writing for the majority, indicated ANCs qualify for funding under CARES because in the 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (“ISDEAA”), which created the legal definition of a "tribe," ANCs were included. Here, the majority indicated that “under the plain meaning of ISDEAA, ANCs are Indian tribes regardless of whether they are also federally recognized 'tribes'” or not. Specifically, the ISDEAA 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 under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (“ANCSA”), which is recognized as eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to the Indians because of their status as Indians.” Since the ISDEAA includes ANCs in the definition of a tribe, the Supreme Court held they are eligible for CARES funds. Meaning, while ANCs are corporations, they are still defined as a tribe after being established under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 and are eligible for any special programs entitled to Native American Tribes.
While the Washington D.C. Circuit sided with the tribes’ claims that “recognition” is a term-of-art definition in Indian law, because ANCs do not have the government-to-government relationship required with the United States government and thus, should not be eligible, the majority of the SCOTUS disagreed. Instead, they stated that “under the plain meaning of ISDEAA” ANCs qualify as tribes. Justice Sotomayor wrote that ANCs are eligible for benefits under ANCSA, which created the village and regional corporations on behalf of the Alaska Native people. Under ANCSA, almost $1 billion and 44 million acres of land was transferred back to the Alaska Native. Thus, the majority held that ANCs, according to ANCSA, confirmed eligibility to be considered an Indian tribe.
The tribes argued this decision would potentially open doors for other non-federally recognized Indian groups to be reorganized under the ISDEAA. However, the Supreme Court again disagreed and stated that ANCs are “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.” Justice Sotomayor further indicated that the “court’s decision today does not vest ANCs with new and untold tribal powers, as respondents fear,” but “[i]t merely confirms the powers Congress expressly afforded ANCs and that the executive branch has long understood ANCs to possess.” Based on this ruling it is now held ANCs are unambiguously “Indian tribes” under the ISDEAA.
Justice Gorsuch, joining with Justices Thomas and Kagan writing for the dissent, indicated the “recognized as eligible” clause in the ISDEAA refers to the “government-to-government recognition that triggers eligibility for the panoply of benefits and services the federal government provides to Indians” and ANCs are not eligible for CARES funding. The dissent disagreed with the majority and argued the plain meaning of the definition is far from clear and said “[e]ven if we could somehow set aside everything we know about how the term is used in Indian law and the CARES Act itself, it’s far from clear what plain meaning the court alludes to or how ANCs might fall within it.”
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