Congress has set aside $ 8 billion for tribal entities across the country under the federal CARES Act. But it took a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June to release some of that pandemic relief funds for Native Alaskan societies.
Then, some of the village corporations obtained significant gains while Sealaska, based in Juneau, the corporation with the most shareholders, obtained the least of the 13 regional corporations.
Business leaders say they’re still trying to understand the big disparities in disbursements.
Companies large and small had requested nearly $ 450 million in federal pandemic assistance – some expecting to be able to offer direct assistance to shareholders.
Don Bremner, president of Yak-Tat Kwaan, Inc., said their allocation was approximately $ 164,000.
“So we thought, “My God, did we fill out the forms wrong? Maybe we missed something, ”he said from Yakutat, where the village company has around 500 shareholders.
Dividing federal aid would be about $ 300 each.
“So it wasn’t something to be excited about, ”said Bremner. “It’s pretty much a stupid change.”
It was a similar story to Angoon.
Melissa Kookesh chairs the board of directors of Kootznoowoo, Inc., which has approximately 1,100 shareholders linked to the village in southeast Admiralty Island.
“Our company only received $ 168,625, ”she said. “And it’s worrying, especially when a urban society, right next to us, receives over $ 11 million.
It refers to Goldbelt, Inc. of Juneau. It received approximately $ 11.1 million, allowing its board of directors to distribute the money to its approximately 4,000 shareholders.
“We are trying to push shareholders as much as possible to get their relief to get this money as quickly as possible,” said McHugh Pierre, CEO of Goldbelt.
Juneau is offering its shareholders up to $ 2,600 in direct assistance until the end of September. Then he will decide what to do with the rest of the money.
“There is enough for everyone,” says Pierre. “It’s not a needs-based system where your income qualifies. If you can certify that you had expenses and that you are a Goldbelt shareholder, we have enough money for everyone to qualify for relief.
The urban Indigenous corporation in Juneau has about four times as many shareholders as Angoon’s, but it has received more than 60 times as much federal aid in the event of a pandemic.
A federal database which shows that the CARES Act payments to Native Alaskan societies suggest that these disparities were common.
Staff at several Indigenous companies said they did not understand exactly how the formula worked. But companies with more shareholders did not necessarily receive more money.
The village corporations have demanded an explanation from the US Treasury Department.
But Nathan McCowan, chairman of the Alaska Native Villages Corporation Association, stated that they had not received a satisfactory response.
“They were translucent, but not transparent,” he said.
According to the Treasury, one of the factors would be the number of employees of the company and its subsidiaries. McCowan said this appears to have impacted many payments.
“There seems to be a strong correlation, in that the larger the operating base, the more employees there are, the more money the company receives,” said McCowan.
This could explain the case of Afognak Native Corporation. He received $ 19.2 million, or nearly $ 20,000 for each of his approximately 1,000 shareholders. It is a relatively small village corporation with ancestral ties to the Kodiak Archipelago. But his income is over $ 600 million a year.
According to a statement from Afognak Native Corporation, executives do not understand the formula used by the Treasury but are “very pleased to have received such a generous grant from the federal government to provide relief and response to the significant impacts of COVID on all of our stakeholders and our community.”
It also helps explain why Juneau’s Goldbelt – which has more than two dozen subsidiaries – received more than twice as much federal aid as Sealaska, the ANCSA company with the most shareholders overall.
In a declaration sent to its 23,000 shareholders, Sealaska said it had received questions from shareholders on how the disbursement was calculated.
“Sealaska is working on the details of how the $ 4.2 million allocation will be distributed for the benefit of our shareholders. We know these 18 months have been difficult and that many are still struggling, ”the statement said. He also said companies that provide housing-related services under a federal program have been given a head start.
In contrast, Tatitlek Corporation, a village company with its roots in Prince William Sound, received nearly $ 5 million – more than Sealaska – despite fewer than 500 shareholders. No one from the company responded to calls for comment.
By far the indigenous company that received the most CARES law funding for tribal entities was CIRI, the regional company serving the Cook Inlet area, including Anchorage, Kenai and Mat-Su. It grossed over $ 111 million, or roughly $ 12,000 per shareholder.
“I don’t know how the Treasury did their calculations to determine the allocation, ”CIRI spokesman Ethan Tyler said.
But, he said, the regional company serves the most populous part of the state. She runs the Southcentral Foundation, which serves some 60,000 Alaskan and Native American Indians, which will allow it to use the funds beyond its direct shareholders, he said.
The three factors that the treasury seems to have taken into account, he said, were tribal population, employment and increased corporate spending.
“But we have not been provided with any basis for the amount of funding the Treasury has allocated to anyone,” he said.
CARES law funds come with conditions. The money must be spent for the expenses related to the pandemic. And within the current deadlines, the CIRI must spend its 111 million dollars by the end of the year.
“We are actively looking to extend this deadline, ”Tyler said.
This month, CIRI announced that its shareholders can apply for assistance of up to $ 1,500, and more for dependents.
It’s not something that many other companies will be able to offer their shareholders, especially in rural Southeast Alaska.
“It’s really, really tough,” Kootznoowoo’s Kookesh said.
She said if it were split, its payout would be less than $ 150 per shareholder.
“And that can’t even get you a plane ticket to Angoon,” she said.
Angoon does not have an airport. All air services are provided by seaplane. This is another project his village society is working on: trying to develop an airstrip for the island community.
Liz Ruskin of Alaska Public Media in Anchorage contributed to this report.