On June 25, in a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Alaska Native Societies (âANCâ) are entitled to COVID-19 relief funds; solidifying that the NCAs qualify as tribes. The decision in Yellen v. Confederate tribes of the Chehalis reserve now allows NCAs to receive funding under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (“CARES”). In that decision, SCOTUS overthrew a unanimous Washington DC circuit panel that initially sided with the tribes and against the ANCs.
Justice Sotomayor, writing for the majority, indicated that NCAs were eligible for funding under CARES because in India’s Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act 1975 (“ISDEAA”) , which created the legal definition of a “tribe”, the NCAs were included. Here, the majority indicated that “in the ordinary sense of the ISDEAA, ANCs are Indian tribes, whether they are also federally recognized ‘tribes'” or not. More specifically, the ISDEAA defines an Indian tribe as “any tribe, band, nation or other organized group or community, including any Native Alaskan village or any regional or village society as defined or established by law. Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (âANCSAâ). ), who is recognized as eligible for special programs and services provided by the United States to Indians because of their Indian status. Since ISDEAA includes ANCs in the definition of a tribe, the Supreme Court has ruled that they are eligible for CARES funds. This means that although NCAs 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 all special programs entitled. to Native American tribes.
While the Washington DC circuit has sided with tribal claims that “recognition” is a definition of art in Indian law, as NCAs do not have the requisite government-to-government relationship with the government of the United States and, therefore, should not be eligible, the majority of SCOTUS disagreed. Instead, they said that “in the ordinary sense of ISDEAA”, the NCAs are considered tribes. Justice Sotomayor wrote that ANCs are eligible for the benefits of ANCSA, which established the village and regional societies on behalf of the natives of Alaska. As part of ANSAA, nearly $ 1 billion and 44 million acres of land have been returned to the natives of Alaska. Thus, the majority felt that the ANCs, according to ANCSA, confirmed the eligibility to be considered an Indian tribe.
The tribes argued that the move would potentially open doors for other federally unrecognized Indian groups to be reorganized under ISDEAA. However, the Supreme Court again disagreed and declared that NCAs are “entities created by federal statute and enjoying a tremendous amount of special federal benefits as part of a legislative experiment tailored to the unique circumstances. from Alaska and recreated nowhere else â. Judge Sotomayor further noted that “today’s court ruling does not give NCAs new and incalculable tribal powers, as respondents fear”, but “[i]It simply confirms the powers that Congress has expressly granted to NCAs and that the executive branch has long understood that NCAs have. Based on this ruling, it is now considered that the NCAs are unambiguously “Indian tribes” under the ISDEAA.
Justice Gorsuch, joining Justices Thomas and Kagan writing for the dissent, said the “recognized as eligible” clause in the ISDEAA refers to “government-to-government recognition that triggers eligibility for the panoply of benefits and services that the federal government provides to Indians âand NCAs are not eligible for CARES funding. The dissent disagreed with the majority and argued that the ordinary meaning of the definition is far from clear and stated â[e]While we could somehow put aside everything we know about how the term is used in Indian law and the CARES law itself, it is far from clear at what point. meaning the court is referring or how NCAs might be part of it.
- Kelsey Haake is a Summer 2021 Associate at Snell & Wilmer and a JD 2023 Candidate at the Carey School of Law at the University of Pennsylvania.