With corporations vying for tribal stimulus, some call for resignation of head of Indian Affairs

With corporations vying for tribal stimulus, some call for resignation of head of Indian Affairs
© Greg Nash

A Department of Interior decision to allow tribal-owned corporations in Alaska to receive stimulus funding intended for tribes has exposed a rift in Native American communities and led to resignation calls for Interior’s head of Indian affairs.

Congress set aside $8 billion in the coronavirus stimulus package for tribal governments, but a form to apply for the assistance asks applicants to list either their total tribal population or their number of shareholders, a nod to the numerous corporations established by Alaskan tribes.

That has incensed some tribes in the Lower 48 who say the funds should not be routed to the many Native-owned oil businesses in Alaska, but should go to tribes responsible for providing direct services to their members.

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The Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association, which represents tribes in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa, are calling for the resignation of Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, saying she will directly benefit if the corporations receive stimulus funding.

Sweeney is an Alaska Native and former vice president with the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, a for-profit company with tribal shareholders that makes money primarily from oil and timber.

“Charged with a large public trust, she unfairly sought to divert emergency Tribal Government resources to state-chartered, for-profit corporations owned by Alaska Native shareholders, including her and her family,” wrote Harold Frazier, chairman of the group.

“She is clearly an interested party — she’s a corporate shareholder and former Vice President of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. She is conflicted," he added. "Sweeney must be removed.”

Interior has rejected calls for Sweeney’s resignation.

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“Assistant Secretary Sweeney is committed to supporting all American Indians and Alaska Natives, and to suggest she has personal motives or that she is attempting to divert funds away from American Indians is completely false,” the department said in a statement.

Tribes aren’t the only ones concerned that the money is being improperly rerouted.

Sen. Tom UdallTom UdallOvernight Defense: Milley reportedly warned Trump against Iran strikes | Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer killed in Afghanistan | 70 percent of active-duty military at least partially vaccinated Biden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Senate Democrats befuddled by Joe Manchin MORE (D-N.M.), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said Congress intended for the funds to flow only to government entities “so that they can continue essential government services.”

“Non-governmental tribal entities may well warrant relief under other CARES Act programs, but this funding in this title was intended for Tribal governments and should not be diverted,” Udall wrote to Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Biden rallies Senate Dems behind mammoth spending plan Mnuchin dodges CNBC questions on whether Trump lying over election Democrats justified in filibustering GOP, says Schumer MORE and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, using the acronym for the stimulus legislation.

It is not uncommon for tribes to own businesses like casinos outright, which provide funding for tribal governments. But while Alaska Native corporations have tribal members as shareholders, those funds do not typically go into tribal coffers.