Supreme Court today: Are Alaska Native Corps entitled to CARES funds?


The case before the U.S. Supreme Court today involves dollars — potentially billions of them in the future: Can Alaska Native Corporations get at the CARES Act funds distributed to tribes?

Alaska Native corporations argued today that they provide their shareholders with services like health care and housing through their nonprofit entities. In their argument, the corporations included a photograph of the Covid-19 vaccine being delivered by dogsled to illustrate the role that Native corporations play in Alaska during the Covid pandemic.

Yellen v. Confederated Tribes of Chehalis Reservation, is a case that consolidates two cases involving tribal government designation with far-reaching implications beyond mere CARES Act funding, but the fundamental question the high court is answering is: Whether Alaska Native regional and village corporations established pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act are “Indian Tribe[s]” for purposes of the CARES Act, 42 U.S.C. 801(g)(1).

When writing the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Congress was trying to avoid many of the ills that prior policymaking had created in the reservation system that exists in the Lower 48. ANCSA created corporations that compete in the business world, and indeed, many ANCSA corporations have business interests all over the world. ANCSA extinguished all Alaska Native indigenous land claims for a sum of $1 billion and 38 million acres of lands in Alaska.

An important aspect of this case is that ANCSA created two types of corporations — 13 larger regional corporations, and 200 village corporations. Alaska Natives who have certain blood quantum are shareholders in both a village an regional corporation.

Although the drafters of ANCSA thought they had settled the matter of Alaska tribal governance, that issue came up in subsequent years and in the 1990s, the federal government determined that Alaska Native villages are federally recognized tribes with some aspects of sovereignty. Today, there are 229 federally recognized tribes in Alaska.

“The settled understanding for the last 45 years has been that ANCs are eligible to be treated as Indian tribes for ISDEA (Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act) purposes, even though ANCs have not, and have never been, federally recognized Indian tribes,” the corporation argued today. “That interpretation has been endorsed by all three branches of the federal government. Congress was acting against the backdrop of that settled understanding when it incorporated the ISDEA definition of Indian tribes into the CARES Act in 2020.”

Congress chose to make ANCs eligible to receive millions of dollars of coronavirus relief funds to benefit the many Alaska Natives whom they serve. “The decision below contravenes that policy judgment and threatens to shut ANCs out of a wide range of important federal programs,” the corporations argued.

Listen to the entire argument, including what the Lower 48 tribes said, at this CSPAN link.


  1. “Alaska Native corporations argued today that they provide their shareholders with services like health care and housing through their nonprofit entities”
    Kind of an aside. So if it is true that the corporations are doing all this for the natives, then why are we spending millions upon millions in the State for Medicaid? If the corps were truly designed to fund the needs of the Alaska Natives, then why are we spending all the State funds for the Alaskan Natives?
    This has been a question of mine for years and I’ve never heard a solid response back that made any sense.

  2. You mean the handouts they’ve been receiving for the past 40 years aren’t enough? When you give people free things for too long, the counter-resentment will eventually take grasp. And it will not be pretty!

  3. Michael C Coons: The S-48 Indian reservations were created long before AmerIndians and Hawaiian Natives were granted US citizenship. Hawaii Natives have the amendments to the Native American’s Program Act, granting them much of the AmerIndian’s rights.
    Alaska Natives never had reservation status (except for the Tsimshians in SE Alaska) and were US citizens before ANCSA.
    This is part of the reason the laws and regulations concerning AmerIndians, Hawaii and Alaska Natives are such a patchwork of confusing, sometimes conflicting content.
    The US government had good will intent in not creating the problems of reservations in Alaska. So ordinary C-class corporations were decided on, with complicity of the Native delegates. Everyone agreed, and it became a done deal.
    These 12 Alaskan Native C-class regional corporations have bylaws which give them many of the attributes of “Benefit ” corporations. The 227 IRA villages are very similar.
    Of course, there’s still the law if unintended consequences, and Murphy’s Law to contend with. It’s been rough … but so far, so good.
    So you’re not alone in your questions … which will probably never have simple, stand alone, understandable answers.

  4. No they’re not entitled to CARES Act money. They already get money to take care of their own folks. To get CARES Act money would mean that they are double dipping.

  5. I don’t know a lot about the Alaska Native Corporations. I know that I have been asked if I belong to one on every job application that I have ever filled out up here. I think that if they pay federal taxes, then they should be eligible to recieve federal money. If not, I don’t see how it is equitable, as they say, to have the cake and eat it too.

  6. I believe the case was heard before the US Supreme Court and not the Alaska Supreme Court. Small error but maybe some wish it was the Alaska Supremes as it would be a no brainer and the Native Corporations would win even if they said nothing in their argument.

  7. It’s all in the verbiage, if the cares act funding states they are eligible then it should be as such. All in all, if you look at the ‘diversity’ of the Vice Presidents, Caucasian is the 75% of them. Payroll is obviously a factor, the subsidiary companies are not ‘native owned’. Why not give it to them to finance the well being of everybody that plays a role instead of just reservations? IMO they are more diverse than the lower 48 ‘Indians’ and more culturally in tact. If someone is getting the money, why not us?

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