If the partial federal government shutdown persists, it will further impact critical services to Indian Country, and “non-essential” federal employees risk being laid off.
“Literally, lives are at stake because the federal government is not up and running in the way that it’s supposed to be,” Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kansas, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation recently sworn in to the U.S. House of Representatives, told NPR.
The partial shutdown, which began midnight on December 22, may affect food distribution programs and nutrition services to Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to native communities nationwide. For some tribes, uncertainty hangs in the air about whether federal deliveries will be processed after January 31.
Health services, transportation, road maintenance, disaster relief and law enforcement are largely performed by federal workers, some of whom are tribal citizens.
Indian Health Service officials recently informed tribal leaders that only doctors, nurses and other specialists will continue to be paid with federal funding during the shutdown. IHS facilities across Indian Country may need to cut jobs and suspend some medical and mental health services.
As The New York Times reported, tribal officials have instituted a hiring freeze on the Bois Forte Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, and next tribal officials will discuss budget cuts. Reservation police officers, who are federal and not tribal employees, have continued to serve without pay, Bois Forte Tribal Chairwoman Cathy Chavers said.
While the federal government is obligated to fulfill its treaty and trust responsibility to tribes, many tribal nations are reevaluating how they will continue to operate—reducing services and modifying budgets to weather the shutdown.
“Whether we get reimbursed by the appropriate federal agency, that’s another question,” Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Chairman Ron Allen told the Peninsula Daily News.
Other tribes are pulling from tribal coffers to cover shortfalls.
Considering the government’s history of shutdowns—16 days in 2013; 21 days in 1996; 11 days in 1979; 17 days in 1978; 12 days in 1977; and 10 days in 1976—tribal nations with the economic capacity to prepare for such an event have been proactive. Cherokee Nation Councilor Joe Byrd told the Cherokee Phoenix: “It’s not so much what you do after the shutdown, but it’s what you do before the shutdown.”
And prior to the federal government shutdown, Cherokee Nation Treasurer Lacey Horn was prepared. Horn, who was featured on the cover of Native Business Magazine’s December Finance issue, ensured that the Cherokee Nation maintained “significant cash reserves on hand.”
“This will help us weather any federal government shutdown storm,” Horn told tribal councilors, reported the Cherokee Phoenix. “You guys can feel some level of comfort that we’ve got enough to continue making payroll for quite some time before we have to start seeing reduced operations and those types of things.”
But for much of Indian Country, the situation is dire.
On the Navajo Nation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) isn’t operating at full capacity. While BIA employees are plowing snow, ice and mud from major arteries to prevent emergency situations, according to the Associated Press, the reservation is vast—home to 7,000 miles of roads and many Navajos without electricity and running water. Unable to commute to jobs, and snowed-in without resources like groceries or medications, Navajo lives are in jeopardy.
Tribal economic stability is also under duress.
The shutdown is costing the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan about $100,000 per day. “We can go back to recent time to 2013 when the shutdown cost my tribe about $1 million. We lost several medical staff as a result because we didn’t understand that their employment would be affected by a government shutdown,” Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians Chairman Aaron Payment told 9and10news.com.
As Kevin Washburn, who served as an assistant secretary for Indian affairs under President Barack Obama, told The Times: Indian Country “stops moving forward” and “starts moving backward” during a shutdown.