Courts Give Tribes Big Wins Against Trump Administration

Blackfeet Tribal Advocate Kendall Edmo in Badger-Two Medicine area, Montana       Photo: Rebecca Drobis, EarthJustice

On Tuesday, a federal judge in Washington ordered the Treasury Department to disburse the $679 million in COVID relief funding the agency had set aside for certain Alaskan native businesses while awaiting a decision in another case to determine whether those businesses, which are not tribal governments, are eligible for the funding.  Because of the narrow dispute over Alaskan native corporations that have large landholdings and income from timber and oil and gas sales, Treasury improperly delayed disbursing a part of the $8 billion Congress set aside in the CARES Act for tribal governments. In addition, an appeals court in Washington invalidated the final oil and gas leases on Blackfeet Tribe sacred lands in Montana’s Badger-Two Medicine region adjacent to Glacier National Park.

Why This Matters: Native American tribal governments must be treated fairly under the law. The Trump administration dragged its feet on disbursing the badly needed stimulus funds, which Senator Tom Udall called “inexcusable” at a time when native communities are being ravaged by the coronavirus due to their lack of adequate health care and basic needs like clean running water.  And that it took drawn-out litigation to invalidate long-defunct oil and gas leases on Native American sacred lands is further evidence of systemic discrimination against them.

CARES Funding Foot Dragging

Tribes initially sued to gain access to the full amount of CARES Act funding because the Trump Administration had withheld it all while the Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) claimed they were eligible for it even though they are not recognized tribal governments but rather private corporations owned by Native Alaskans.  Only after the same judge ruled in May that the ANCs cannot receive the funds (a decision which is being appealed now) did the Treasury Department disburse 60% of the CARES Funds intended for tribal governments.  But they withheld a portion for the ANCs should they succeed, which the court just struck down now.  This paves the way for the final nearly $700m to get to the tribal governments that desperately need it albeit months late.

Badger Two-Medicine Sacred Area

The case arose after a 2016 decision canceling an improperly granted oil and gas lease on sacred tribal lands to a company called Solenex saying its issuance in the early 1980s had violated environmental law and occurred without required tribal consultation. Solenex sued to overturn that decision, and a federal district court ruled for the company in September 2018, reinstating Solenex’s lease. On Tuesday, after years of advocacy by Blackfeet Tribal leaders, including Kendall Edmo (one of our Heroes to the Week), an appeals court reversed the ruling.  Now the Tribe must seek permanent protection for Badger-Two Medicine, which is favored by a majority of Montana residents.

The Blackfeet explained the significance of their court victory this way in an Earth Justice press statement.  “Our traditional practices and traditional lands are the firm ground underfoot that we need to push off into the future,” said Tyson Running Wolf. Running Wolf is a Montana state legislator, former Blackfeet Tribal Business Council member, hunting outfitter, and leader among Blackfeet traditionalists. “This is how we heal ourselves, how we heal our communities, how we move forward into success. The Badger-Two Medicine is more than just land; it’s an entire way of life.”

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