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Government shutdown’s hit magnified for tribes

Posted: October 4, 2013 - 7:46am

CROW AGENCY, Mont. — American Indian tribes have more than access to national parks on the line with the government shutdown, as federal funding has been cut off for crucial services including foster care payments, nutrition programs and financial assistance for the needy.

For the 13,000 members of southeast Montana’s Crow Tribe, the budget impasse had immediate and far-reaching effects: Tribal leaders furloughed more than 300 workers Wednesday, citing the shutdown and earlier federal budget cuts.

As a result, tribal programs including home health care for the elderly and disabled, bus service for rural areas, and a major irrigation project were suspended indefinitely.

“It’s going to get hard,” said Shar Simpson, who leads the Crow’s home health care program. “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?’”

Some tribes intend to fill the gap in federal funds themselves, risking deficits of their own to cushion communities with chronic high unemployment and poverty against the effects of the budget battle.

“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 unresolved,” said Tracy “Ching” King, president of northern Montana’s Fort Belknap Reservation.

But for other tribes, basic services stand to take a direct hit. That includes programs heavily subsidized by federal agencies and others paid for with tribal money that is suddenly unavailable because it’s being held by the Department of Interior, tribal leaders said.

Essential activities such as law enforcement, firefighting and some social services will continue, said Bureau of Indian Affairs spokeswoman Nedra Darling. Programs that did not make the list include residential care for children and adults, cash assistance for the poor and payments to vendors who provide foster care.

How long those programs will continue on reservations depends on the duration of the shutdown and how much money individual tribes can spare. The BIA provides services to more than 1.7 million American Indians and Alaska Natives from more than 500 recognized tribes.

Crow Chairman Darrin Old Coyote said his tribe decided to furlough workers now, hoping the move will be only temporary, rather than push into deficit a budget stretched thin by earlier federal cuts and recent declines in revenue from a coal mine on the reservation.

“We’re taking a proactive approach,” Old Coyote said. The 316 furloughed workers represent about half the tribe’s employees.

In South Dakota, Yankton Sioux Tribe Vice Chairwoman Jean Archambeau said the shutdown means money for heating assistance won’t be coming this fall.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said. “They’re already predicting snow out west and possibly in this area of the state.”

General assistance payments, which help people with general needs not covered by other programs, also have been cut, Archambeau said.

The National Congress of American Indians and tribal leaders said the “double whammy” of the shutdown and the earlier automatic spending cuts known as sequestration illustrates their vulnerability in the federal budget process.

“Your destiny is sort of in someone else’s hands,” Chippewa Cree tribal spokesman Larry Denny said.

The NCAI said other areas where cuts could be felt most acutely include nutrition programs that distribute food to an average of 76,500 people a month from an estimated 276 tribes.

During the last government shutdown in the mid-1990s, general assistance payments from the BIA were delayed for nearly 53,000 American Indian recipients, according to the NCAI.

Such payments total about $42 million annually, and tribal leaders say they help offset chronic unemployment levels. On the Fort Belknap Reservation, for example, the unemployment rate hovers around 70 percent of tribal members, King said.

“To get them out of that rut, you have to invest in them somehow. You want to encourage them to work and see what their talents are,” King said. “But if this (shutdown) continues, we’ll have to look at all of our programs individually and say can we afford this, to see what we could do to provide services to our most needy.”

He says Fort Belknap’s Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes will pay for affected programs themselves until federal payments resume. But he warns that could hurt tribal finances already strained from prior federal cuts. Within just a few weeks, carrying the cost of federal programs could cost the tribe roughly $1 million, King said.

In Minnesota, the leader of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe said the tribe was concerned that it won’t receive normal reimbursement for health services and that health workers might go unpaid for some hours.

Tribal chairwoman Erma Vizenor also said plans to stock local lakes with sturgeon and other species in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service might have to be postponed.

The Navajo Nation, which spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, so far has seen no major impacts from the shutdown. But that could change if the shutdown persists, said Erny Zah, a spokesman for the tribe.

For example, the tribe is exploring the purchase of a coal mine in northwestern New Mexico. Zah said the federal Office of Surface Mining needs to approve certain aspects of the plan over the next month for it to move forward.

The NCAI said even if the shutdown is resolved soon, budget cuts already planned for 2013 will mean less money for the Indian Health Service, education programs, law enforcement, housing and road maintenance work.

“The (federal government’s) trust responsibility to tribal nations is not a line item, and tribal programs must be exempt from budget cuts in any budget deal,” the group said in a statement.

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