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Yellen v. Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation

The Supreme Court Will Determine If Nontribal Alaska Natives Can Receive Benefits Under The 2020 COVID-19 Relief Act

ArgumentApril 19, 2021
Opinion BelowD.C. Circuit Court of Appeals
Petitioners’ BriefsJanet L. Yellen
Alaska Native Village Corporation, Inc., et al.
Respondents’ BriefsConfederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, et al.
Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation

In 2020 Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) to give various forms of relief for the coronavirus pandemic. Title V of the Act set out $150 billion for states, local governments and tribal governments, of which it reserved $8 billion “for making payments to Tribal governments.”

This case concerns the definition of “Tribal governments.” A substantial number of natives in Alaska are nontribal and are instead bound only by a corporate entity, not a “tribe” per se. This case addresses whether Alaska native corporations (regional or village-based) can receive funds reserved for “Tribal governments” under the CARES Act.

Background: Alaska Native Corporations

A number of Alaskan natives are nontribal. They did not originally have an organizational unit or entity, like a tribe, binding them. Rather, they lived around small isolated villages.

For this reason, the U.S. government for years did not recognize the nontribal natives’ sovereignty. When the government started to recognize tribal sovereignty of Indians around the nation, the nontribal Alaskan natives’ interests were deemed represented by the federal government.

In the second half of the 20th century, as Alaska became a state, the federal government finally had to address how to attribute Alaskan land to the native population. In 1958, the Alaska Statehood Act transferred land from the federal government to the soon-to-be State. And in 1968, the discovery of oil on Alaska’s North Slope required construction of a pipeline system to run across the state, which also required considering land ownership.

In 1971, as a part of dealing with land attribution in Alaska, Congress passed a law to help Alaskan natives “assimilate” to American corporate culture. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) abolished all but one reservation in Alaska and put all the rest of the land (44 million acres) and money ($962.5 million) due to native populations into private business corporations that the law established at the same time: Alaska Native Regional Corporations and Alaska Native Village Corporations (together referred to as Alaska native corporations, or ANCs). 

First, the statute divided Alaska into twelve geographic areas, each sharing a common heritage and interests, and it created a regional corporation for each area. Second, ANCSA required the Alaska Native residents of each “Native village”—defined as any community of at least twenty-five Alaska Natives—to organize as a village corporation to receive benefits under the statute. Village corporations “hold, invest, manage and/or distribute lands, property, funds, and other rights and assets for and on behalf of a Native village.”

Confederated Tribes v. Mnuchin (D.C. Cir. 2020) (internal citations omitted).

As stated by Petitioner:

These newly created Alaska Native regional and village corporations (ANCs) were the primary vehicles for Congress to deliver the benefits of the land claims settlement to Alaska Natives. In general, each village corporation was entitled to select a certain acreage of public lands, withdrawn for that purpose, in the vicinity of the village; the village corporation received a patent to the surface estate in the lands selected, while the regional corporation received a patent to the subsurface (mineral) estate. 

Brief of Petitioner Janet L. Yellen at 5.

The ANCs would also give out benefits like health and education to natives or native descendants. 

The ISDA Definition of Indian Tribe

Once ANCs  became responsible for receiving government benefits for Alaskan natives, federal laws started to name them specifically as they issued aid to Indians around the nation. And they were specifically named in the federal law defining an “Indian tribe,” the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1978 (ISDA). The Act intended to “help Indian tribes assume responsibility for aid programs that benefit their members.” Menominee Indian Tribe of Wis. v. United States (2016). 

An “Indian tribe” under the ISDA is:

[A]ny Indian tribe, band, nation, or other organized group or community, including any Alaska Native village or regional or village corporation as defined in or established pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (85 Stat. 688) . . .

25 U.S.C. § 5304(e).

However the same definition continues with a condition:

. . . which is recognized as eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to Indians because of their status as Indians.


Federally “recognized Indian tribe” status is an official characterization. It’s formal, and it’s been granted to tribes. However, the status has never been granted to an ANC.

Issue in the Case

When Congress passed the CARES Act, it incorporated the ISDA definition of Indian tribe. So the question is: do ANCs qualify as Indian tribes so that they are able to get the pandemic relief in the CARES Act?

The ISDA definition of Indian tribe, when you consider the “recognition clause,” is confusing. It specifically names ANCs, but there aren’t any ANCs that have been recognized. So does that mean that despite being mentioned, no ANCs actually qualify under the definition? Or does that mean that the recognition clause does not apply to ANCs? 

There’s a third possibility: what if “recognized” in the recognition clause isn’t the term of art that requires official recognition? It could mean “recognized” in the regular English sense, an interpretation which leaves room for Petitioners to argue that ANCs do meet the recognition clause.

Petitioners’ Arguments

Petitioners include Janet Yellen, the Treasury Secretary enforced with administering the CARES Act, and the ANCs who intervened in the case as defendants and have an obvious stake in the outcome. 

Both Yellen and the ANCs argue that Congress clearly intended to include ANCs as Indian tribes under the ISDA and as Tribal governments under the CARES Act, which incorporates the same definition. The definition specifically identifies ANCs as Indian tribes. The “recognition clause” which qualifies the definition, cannot apply to ANCs because if it did, then no ANCs would meet the definition. That would render the phrase which mentions them superfluous.

Petitioners point out that the federal government has interpreted the definition to include ANCs since it was enacted. The 9th Circuit which encompasses Alaska has done the same for the past 30 years. Further, Congress reenacted the same definition in the ISDA, knowing the government and the 9th Circuit interpreted it this way. Had Congress meant to disclude ANCs, it would have corrected the phrasing instead of reenacted the definition.

Petitioners further argue that Congress meant to include ANCs because ANCs are the vehicles the federal government uses to provide benefits to Alaskan nontribal natives. There’s no reason the government would leave them out. The government has been providing Alaskan native benefits through ANCs for years, and changing the interpretation of the ISDA definition would leave them without benefits to which they are entitled.

To aid the Court in its textual hook, the Petitioners argue that the “recognition clause” doesn’t need to include “recognition” as a term of art, as in the way the federal government formally recognizes Indian tribes. “Recognition” in the clause is simply a word. It just means that the federal government recognizes the tribes, which is clearly does.

The Tribes’ Argument

The Tribes don’t want to share with ANCs the $8 billion that Congress allocated in the CARES Act to Indian tribes. They argue ANCs aren’t tribes, and ANCs don’t meet the definition because they aren’t recognized by the government in the formal sense, like the definition requires.

There’s no need to label the mention of ANCs in the ISDA definition superfluous, the tribes argue. Congress included ANCs in the definition just in case they would — in the future — become recognized. When you review the phrasing of the definition, in light of the recognition clause, it’s clear based on all interpretations of grammatical and statutory instruction that the recognition clause must apply to ANCs.

The tribes note Petitioners’ point that federal courts have interpreted the definition to include ANCs. The tribes argue in response that the interpretation in federal courts has never been well-settled enough to actually contradict the text of the legislative act. On the other hand, it’s always been clear that when the government speaks of “recognized” “Indian tribes,” it means recognized in the formal sense:

Multiple formally promulgated regulations—including from the agencies charged with administering ISDA, and the Department of the Treasury, charged with implementing the CARES Act—have likewise interpreted the “Indian tribe” definition as restricted to federally recognized tribes. Ratification provides no basis for departing from plain text, and neither does the run of other enactments, which carries a very different meaning than that presented by petitioners. 

Brief of Respondents Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, et al. at 5.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on April 19, 2021.

Yellen v. Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation

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About the Author

Mariam Morshedi

Mariam Morshedi

Mariam Morshedi is the Founder and Executive Director of Subscript Law. Before starting Subscript Law, she practiced civil rights law for AARP Foundation, where she litigated housing, consumer and disability rights issues.

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