First in Line: Government Shutdown Hits Indian Country
Washington, D.C. has been shut down for 63 hours, and while the effects aren’t entirely noticeable throughout the United States yet, they are glaring in Indian country.
According to the Associated Press, the shutdown has cut off federal funding for services including foster care payments, nutrition programs and financial assistance for the needy—many of the areas that American Indians rely on as part of treaty obligations with the government.
More than 200 federally recognized tribes are located in Alaska and are preparing for the harsh winter season, which starts in less than a month. Many of those tribes receive federal funding to help Alaska Native villages, according to Aljazeera America.
“It’s going to be 40 below in a month,” Ed Alexander, second chief of the Gwichyaa Zheeband of Gwich’in Indians, told Aljazeera America. “I hope the Republicans get their act together and pass a clean CR [continuing resolution]. Everybody’s hoping that. It’s the poorest who are suffering most. That’s what’s happening here.”
The Crow Tribe in Montana took a preemptive approach by furloughing more than 300 workers on October 2, AP reported. The tribe has 13,000 members, and laying off these workers resulted in cuts to tribal programs, including home health care for the elderly and disabled. In addition, bus service for rural areas and a major irrigation project were suspended indefinitely.
Shar Simpson, who leads the Crow’s home health care program, told AP, “It’s going to get hard. We’re already taking calls from people saying, ‘Who’s going to take care of my mom? Who’s going to take care of my dad?’”
Without federal money, some tribes will be relying on minimal funds to try and maintain some normalcy. But how long they can hold on will depend on each tribe, since not all of them can rely on gaming or other business ventures for income. Many tribes are already crippled by poverty despite the federal assistance that has now been halted.
“Do we just throw kids onto the street, or do we help them? Most likely we’re going to help those families and do whatever we can until this is resolved,” Tracy “Ching” King, president of Fort Belknap Reservation, said to AP.
Bureau of Indian Affairs spokeswoman Nedra Darling told AP that law enforcement, firefighting and some social-service programs would remain open, while residential care for children and adults, cash assistance for the poor and payments to vendors who provide foster care would stop.
Like the Crow Tribe and those in Alaska, the Yankton Sioux Tribe in South Dakota is preparing for winter. The members rely on federal funding for heating assistance in an area often hit the hardest during the winter months.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do," Yankton Sioux Tribe vice chairwoman Jean Archambeau told the AP. "They’re already predicting snow out west, and possibly in this area of the state.”
Assistance is not the only thing being hit. Many tribal members risk losing jobs even if they don't hold government positions. As reported by Aljazeera America, vital contracts and grants are important to many businesses throughout Indian country, the timber industry being just one example.
“It shuts down jobs,” Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe in Washington told Aljazeera America. “They can’t administer the sales, they can’t administer the appraisals that have to go on for timber assessment. It stops everything in its tracks.”
Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation, recently released a statement about the shutdown and its effects on the largest Indian reservation in the country.
“The federal government shutdown is an opportunity for the Navajo Nation to begin to exercise true sovereignty," Shelly said. "Though we need our federal partners to assist us, we can continue to establish and practice governmental policies that strengthen the Navajo Nation."
Shelly told Aljazeera America that the tribe would have enough money to run the jails, the police force and other programs for about a month but that other programs such as tribal colleges and Head Start could be hurt.
“It is unconscionable that the federal government will come to a complete halt due to a few unreasonable members of Congress,” Shelly told Aljazeera America. “They have one primary role, to fund the government, and they need to do their job.”