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American Indians Have Shake Shack Moment in Virus Aid Fight

April 28, 2020, 4:12 PM

A group of American Indian tribes persuaded a judge to bar the Trump administration -- at least for now -- from doling out coronavirus relief money to for-profit tribal corporations in Alaska.

Congress allocated the money, part of the $2.2 trillion Cares Act stimulus package, for “tribal governments” to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. Eighteen tribes sued to challenge Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s decision that native corporations in Alaska would also be eligible for the cash, arguing that aid should go to tribes with “dire needs” ahead of for-profit entities.

The split within the American Indian community over who’s most deserving of public funding comes amid a furor over larger companies seeking small-business emergency loans from the federal government. Shake Shack Inc. quickly became a focal point of the controversy and said it would return its $10 million loan.

Tribes including the Cheyenne Sioux and Ute of the Uintah and Ouray reservation said they feared that giving money to the Alaska corporations wouldn’t leave enough for federally recognized tribes, including those in Alaska, to address the pandemic.

The Alaska corporations, established by Congress in 1971 as part of a settlement with Alaska Natives, own some of the state’s largest enterprises and are among its biggest employers.

Read More: ‘Shake Shack Loophole’ Stays Open, Spawns a Washington Whodunit

By contrast, the Asa’carsarmiut Tribe said in the lawsuit that it must address the needs of homeless families as well as those of “intergenerational families who live in overcrowded substandard housing, lacking water and sewer services.”

U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta in Washington on Monday issued an order that temporarily prohibits Mnuchin from giving any of the money to the for-profit corporations while the court fight continues.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Robert Burnson in San Francisco at

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
David Glovin at

Peter Jeffrey, Peter Blumberg

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.