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Navajo Nation joins lawsuit against federal government over coronavirus relief funding distribution

Tribal leaders oppose sharing the $8 billion allocated in the CARES Act with Alaska Native Corporations — which are for-profit companies with non-Native shareholders

Korene Atene, a certified nursing assistant with the Monument Valley Health Center, gets information from people lined up to get tested for COVID-19 outside of the center in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, April 16, 2020. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country.
Korene Atene, a certified nursing assistant with the Monument Valley Health Center, gets information from people lined up to get tested for COVID-19 outside of the center in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, April 16, 2020. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — With an outbreak of COVID-19 that rivals the worst hot spots in the country, the Navajo Nation, the hardest hit among the country’s the 574 federally recognized tribal governments, was desperate for the help provided by the Coronavirus Relief Fund.

Now, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin has announced federal officials intend to include Alaska Native Corporations in the tribal groups that get a piece of the $8 billion allocated by Congress to help Native American governments fight the COVID-19 outbreak.

On Wednesday, the Navajo Nation joined 10 other tribes in a lawsuit filed April 17 against Mnuchin in the District of Columbia’s federal court claiming the funds should not go to Alaska Native Corporations, but should be reserved for them. Attorneys for the Navajo Nation contend the 230 Alaska Native Corporations are for-profit companies that are owned by shareholders, including “non-Indian shareholders.”

“The 12 regional Alaska Native Corporations alone have over 138,000 shareholders, employ more than 43,000 people worldwide, and generated more than $10.5 billion in revenues in 2018,” a news release from the Navajo Nation said.

The suit points out that Native Americans suffer disproportionately high rates of cancer, diabetes and asthma, which “subject them to greater risk of fatal complications from COVID-19,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit outlines how tribal governments are responsible for health care facilities, jails, schools and libraries. They have also scrambled to find enough resources to support residents impacted by the economic downturn.

Tribes have also been responsible for policies that will mitigate the spread of the virus. On the Navajo Nation, where more than 1,300 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and nearly 50 people have died, that’s meant a nightly curfew and 57-hour weekend lockdowns. Additionally, non-Native Americans have been banned from using reservation roads, and they have created check points and mobile health units, all in an attempt to keep residents of tribal lands safe, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit asserts that the secretary’s designation of Alaska Native Corporations as tribal governments violates the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act, and said “ANC-owned lands are not Indian Country.”

President Jonathan Nez said sharing the money with the for-profit corporations will massively reduce the help the Navajo Nation receives, even as tribal governments struggle to provide basic services while attempting to control the spread of COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, today we had to file a lawsuit against the federal government to get our share of the federal dollars that have been allocated for tribes,” Nez said in a press release.

“The first Americans are once again having to fight for what is right and what is ours. Now is the time for us as Diné people to be united against COVID-19, by adhering to the Navajo Nation’s shelter-in-place order and the daily and weekend curfews. Some states are beginning to consider loosening restrictions, but not the Navajo Nation. We are relying on the health care experts and the facts as we continue the fight against COVID-19,” he said.

The Navajo Nation extended its declaration of a state of emergency until May 17, while most surrounding states, including Utah, are looking to ease restrictions May 1. Vice President Myron Lizer said the tribe was just starting to see the benefits of COVID-19 relief bills, but said they’re still desperate for more rapid testing, health care personnel, personal protective equipment, and ventilators.

Nation leaders lamented that they have had to spend time, energy and money fighting for funds and resources that should be divided between tribal governments. The funds would not only help with the current emergent situation, but would help them prepare long-term for a pandemic that may be slowing but is far from over.

“The Navajo Nation has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic with over 1,200 positive cases and almost 50 deaths,” said Navajo Nation Attorney General Doreen N. McPaul. “Our nation’s government is in dire need of support for the critical medical and community needs of our people. We are literally fighting for dollars to save lives.”

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly reported $8 million will be distributed through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and. Economic Security Act. The correct amount is $8 billion.