Tribal groups are vying over $8bn in funding intended for tribal governments under the 2020 CARES Act.

US Supreme Court justices on Monday signalled sympathy towards allowing federal COVID-19 relief funds to go to specially created corporations for Native Alaskans even though they are not officially recognised as tribal governments in a case pitting groups of Indigenous Americans against each other.

The justices heard almost two hours of arguments in the case in which tribal groups are fighting over $8bn in funding intended for tribal governments under the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act. About $533m of that aid hinges on the case’s outcome.

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 what are known as Alaska Native corporations from receiving any of the funds. Among the challengers are the Navajo Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

Healthcare workers vaccinating tribal and non-tribal patients at the Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center in Fairbanks, Alaska, US [File: Nathan Howard/Reuters]

The justices indicated support for the Native Alaskan corporations and the federal government, which both argued that the corporations can receive the funding.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh told the challengers’ lawyer that “tens of thousands of Native Alaskans would be left out completely” if the court embraced his argument.

“Why are you treating Alaska Natives as kind of second class?” Kavanaugh asked.

The CARES Act said funds should be distributed to the “governing body of an Indian tribe” based on the definition described in a 1975 federal law called the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which does mention the Alaska corporations.

Some of the justices seemed to agree with the government’s position that this definition, although written poorly, lets corporations participate in government programmes even though they are not federally recognised tribes.

Justice Elena Kagan noted that although the statutory language is badly phrased, there did not seem to be a plausible alternative interpretation.

“The question is whether there really is another conceivable meaning here,” Kagan said.

The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit last year reversed a lower court’s ruling that had favoured the federal government and the corporations, prompting the appeal to the Supreme Court.

A team of healthcare workers with the Tanana Chiefs Conference walk to board a flight in Fairbanks, Alaska, US [File: Nathan Howard/Reuters]

The 12 corporations were established to help Native Alaskans thrive after Alaska achieved statehood in 1959. They have become successful and diversified businesses with interests in such areas as oil and gas drilling, real estate and construction. In 2017, they had a combined revenue of $9.1bn. The corporations also provide various social services for Native Alaskans.

The corporations were created under a 1971 federal law that sought to address land claims and provide economic benefits to Native Alaskans without allocating land to tribal governments. Federal funding and land, including mineral rights, were given to the new regional corporations.

This law also set up separate Alaska native village corporations on a smaller scale. Native Alaskans received stock in the corporation set up where they lived.

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