Crisis Mismanagement: Shutdown Puts Indians in Deadly D.C. Crossfire

Walter Lamar

Imagine your income got cut by about 60 percent. Could you feed your family and pay your bills? What would you do? Tribes and tribal members are about to find out as Washington turns dark, leaving a "small cadre to protect life and property" according to Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn.

Everyone alive in the 1990s remembers that a federal shutdown seriously impacted the health and safety of tribal members across the nation, and today is shaping up to be equally as bad. Every tribe in the United States is suffering in the crossfire of the ongoing battle in Washington. Tribal governments, already pinched from budget cuts and the sequester are scrambling to fund operations for the (hopefully short) duration. National media may be having palpitations over park and monument closures, but people living on reservations may be without basic necessities like food, housing, and utilities. The Honorable Ruth Hopkins, Chief Judge, Spirit Lake, writes, “Since the BIA is running Spirit Lake's child services, this government shutdown is posing a serious danger to innocent Native children here who need their help most. There's one Native woman trying to hold it down but she's basically volunteering since the shutdown, and can only handle serious emergencies. I hope and pray no one is hurt or killed while greedy suits in DC argue over ideology.” The story is similar across Indian Country.

Because of our Trust land status, economic development will feel the impact, especially the industries of tourism, gas and oil, timber, mining, and real estate.

If there is any bright spot in this picture, it's that we learned some lessons from the last shutdown, and have made arrangements to identify and even "forward fund" many essential services, including law enforcement, firefighters, many schools, and Indian Health Service (IHS) medical facilities. Of course, support staff has been cut, as well as most support services. Since each tribe has their own funding arrangements and budgets, the picture varies widely across the nation.

We'll be able to see an IHS doctor, but don't count on your medical records getting filed again afterward (and who knows if the janitors are showing up?). Payments will cease to the two-thirds of clinics that tribes operate under contracts; these clinics are expected to stay open under "available funding and alternative resources," although what those might be, IHS failed to say. Tribal schools will mostly be open, but programs funded through federal grants will be delayed and lunch programs may run out of funds before the end of the month.

VA hospitals will be open, and checks will be paid through most of October, but new or ongoing cases, appeals, and requests for assistance will not be processed, and non-medical veterans' facilities are closed.

Law enforcement might be able to open a child-abuse case, but foster care services have been shuttered and payments won't be issued. United States. Attorneys have furloughed workers, so both defendants and claimants in Indian Country will have to wait patiently for the backlog to clear. Food stamps will continue, but WIC payments may not. Federal employees essential to public safety, like corrections guards in federal facilities or tribal jails, are required to show up to work, and may or may not get back pay when Congress decides to do its job again. Water and electric delivery to reservations is assured, but without help from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, payments, individuals may not be able to keep the lights on.

Meanwhile, MOUs and contracts will go unsigned, meetings have been cancelled, and legally required consultations won't take place. Land sales have ceased, permit applications are in limbo; and federal loans to individuals and businesses may be frozen. Hiring will slow as required federal background checks can't be completed for schools, governments, casinos, day care facilities, law enforcement, Head Start, medical professionals and other critical service personnel. Oil and gas royalty payments will not be processed.

We know about the political theater that has brought us to this point, but what do we do now? Assistant Secretary Washburn had shared BIA's contingency plans in advance of the shutdown, so tribes could start evaluating their financial positions and make decisions accordingly.

Some tribes, especially those with gaming operations or other industries, think they will squeak by on reserve cash by tightening their belts another notch. Others have drawn down promised federal funds in anticipation of this event. A few, like the Hopi, think they can keep the doors open without help, but many others—like the small tribe of Washington's Olympic peninsula—aren't going to be able to operate more than a week or so before having to resort to private loans or other extreme measures. Tribes who shoulder the burden of funding their own services during this period may or may not get reimbursed from Washington.

The reaction from Indian country seems to be more resigned than angry. Tribes with the resources to lobby Washington were already on the offensive about sequester cuts, claiming that the cuts violated the government's well-established federal trust responsibility to protect tribal lands and people. When the United South and Eastern Tribes brought up the possibility of reversing the sequester during a February meeting with the White House office of Intergovernmental Affairs, they were told, "That's just not going to happen."

Meanwhile, some tribes may be able to turn to states and local governments for support with social services and child welfare. NCAI continues to push for exemption for tribes, claiming that the treaty obligations to Native people should be funded on a separate basis than the rest of the budget. Additionally tribal leaders will be requesting that more programs be "forward funded" so that tribes can continue to function even when Washington isn't.

But the sad fact is that the United States government has to be functional to meet its treaty obligations. Congressional gridlock has prevented a real budget from passing since 1997, and any kind of omnibus spending measure from being enacted since 2009. The past few years seem to have been nothing more than lurching from crisis to crisis. Episodes of "Russian roulette" style brinksmanship alternate with ridiculous political posturing, like voting 40 times to defund the Affordable Care Act or refusing to renew the Violence Against Women Act.

Instead of being resigned, perhaps we should get angry. Can we get angry enough to vote out the people who got us into this situation? Can we get angry enough to raise our voices in protest instead of giving up in silent defeat? Can we get angry enough to join together and make some changes with federal employees, state governments, military groups and others hit hard by these shenanigans? Can we get angry enough to get Washington back to work and make them do their jobs? The first job we have is to contact the people who got us into this mess. If you've been furloughed today, or you're sitting at home fretting over whether you'll make it through the month, go ahead and light up that Congressional switchboard and tell them (politely) how you feel about the job they're doing.

Walter Lamar, Blackfeet/Wichita, is a former FBI special agent, deputy director of BIA law enforcement and is currently president of Lamar Associates. Lamar Associates' Indian Country Training Division offers culturally appropriate training for Indian country law enforcement and service professionals with both on-site and online courses.