Native American communities hit hard by government shutdown

Federal government is critical in lives of Native Americans; shutdown harms most vulnerable

Yakama Nation tribal member Tadd Blodgett of White Swan, Wash., pulls sockeye and steelhead from east of Bonneville Dam.
The Oregonian/Landov

By Kevin Taylor and Jenni Monet

No roads link the tiny town of Fort Yukon, Alaska, to the rest of the United States, but that doesn't mean the federal government shutdown won't reach the nearly 600 inhabitants, mostly members of the Alaska Native population, who still fish and hunt for subsistence.

Ed Alexander is second chief of the Gwichyaa Zhee band of Gwich'in Indians who reside there, and he spent most of Tuesday online trying to determine what exactly the shutdown's impact would be. The timing is terrible for Alaska Native villages, he said, hurting students who have not yet received scholarship money they need for faraway universities and creating unemployment — the government is a core employer — just as people are preparing for an interior Alaska winter.

"It's going to be 40-below in a month,'' Alexander said. "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 federal government plays a critical role for the 1.7 million American Indians and Alaska Natives in the 566 federally recognized tribes, providing key services that include health care, schools, social programs and law enforcement protection, all supported by its long-standing treaty obligations made with Native Americans.

Some essential services will continue during the shutdown, such as law enforcement and firefighting, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And the 176 Indian Health Service hospitals and clinics will stay open.

But the shutdown means freezes have already been placed on nutrition programs, foster care payments, financial assistance for the poor and anti-elder-abuse programs. Some tribes risk losing all their income in timber operations if federal employees aren't there. Vital contracts and grants will be stalled.

"It shuts down jobs,'' said Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe in western Washington state. "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.''

Seen through a different lens

Allen, also an executive board member of the National Congress of American Indians, said it isn't just tribes with timber that are affected. 

"It could be coal for the Crow Tribe over in Montana, mineral or grazing rights or oil reserves,'' he said. "Those all stop. It causes a huge hardship.''

While some Americans might see the shutdown as a political fight, those in Indian country look at it through a different lens. After all, "treaties were a contract between sovereign nations, the United States and the Indian communities,'' said Allen. 

"From the tribal perspective, we're leveraging the promises and commitments the federal government has made to the Indian communities through treaties and executive orders,'' he said.

On Friday, the Department of the Interior, the agency that oversees the BIA, issued its contingency plan in the event of a shutdown. Along with the essential services, the Bureau of Indian Education will also stay open. 

Still, thousands of employees will be furloughed. The BIA says as many as 2,528 employees will not be reporting for work during the shutdown. And the Bureau of Indian Education lists 180 employees nationwide who will also be forced to stay home from their jobs.

From Fort Yukon, Alexander did not find the contingency plan or the website helpful. 

“You have to remember tribes are complicated,'' he said. "We manage land issues and housing and health and water … hunting, fishing enrollment."

There is also the question of what happens if tribes try to fill in the gaps themselves.

“We don’t know if they are even going to allow us to utilize our carryover funding from last year to keep open during the shutdown,” Alexander continued. “Right now we are doing that, but let’s say the shutdown is over, and the BIA comes back online and says, ‘You weren’t allowed to do that,’ and then we take a general-fund hit that we can’t afford.”

Largest reservation reacts

A big question for Alexander is if he can use carryover funds to get ready for snow plowing or to complete construction of federally backed houses before winter arrives, which in Fort Yukon "is all happening in this next week or so.”

“These basic management questions really need to be communicated more clearly to tribes. I don’t know how they can do that now that they are shut down,” he said. Some tribes turned to social media. George Tiger, principal chief of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, posted a Youtube video Tuesday to try to reassure tribal members that the Muscogee were OK — for now.

In the Navajo Nation, the largest Indian reservation in the country, tribal officials said it receives two-thirds of its budget from the federal government. That money goes to support jails, its police force and other programs.

The tribe said it would have enough money to run those operations for about a month, but other programs such as tribal colleges and Head Start could be hurt.

In a statement released Monday, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly expressed his dismay that Congress was failing to honor its trust responsibility to tribes.

"It is unconscionable that the federal government will come to a complete halt due to a few unreasonable members of Congress," Shelly said. "They have one primary role, to fund the government, and they need to do their job."   

While the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services deemed the Indian Health Service hospitals and clinics too critical to close, future funding would be affected if the shutdown continues, the agency said. Further funding cuts would only increase the spending gap the IHS has experienced in recent months. In 2013 alone, Indian hospitals and clinics experienced cuts of $800,000 as a result of government sequestration.

Life or limb

"In health care, you are not being preventive because of those restrictions,” said Maxine Smart, chairwoman of the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, who said the tiny tribe’s budget was cut by about 5 percent by sequestration.

The Fort McDermitt Tribe was able to transfer funding for some critical programs to its own bank, Smart said, so the money can be accessed while federal workers are off the job. But she worries that delays in completing the federal budget will lead to shortfalls in the first quarter of 2014. Layering that on top of sequestration cuts creates problems.

No preventive health care may lead to more serious health issues in which a tribal member may need to see a specialist. At present funding levels, the reality of that being authorized, Smart said, “is only if it’s life or limb.”

She said police coverage for the remote reservation in the high desert along the Oregon-Nevada border is similarly affected: “We contract with the BIA for law enforcement, and they are not allowed any overtime.”

It's unclear whether tribes that replace their federal funding would be reimbursed after a budget is passed. When a government shutdown was threatened in 2011, former BIA Assistant Secretary Carl Artman told The Associated Press the agency's response might be that the tribes don't have a right to demand a refund.

On Facebook, Ed Alexander described a typical day in Fort Yukon, noting that the U.S. government might be closed, but the Gwich'in nation was open for business.

Back in Fort Yukon, Second Chief Alexander took his frustrations to his Facebook page.

"The American government is shutdown,'' he wrote, "but the Gwich'in Nation is still open for business."

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