All across Indian Country, the federal shutdown slices deep. Native Americans, entitled to federal services under treaties, are bearing the brunt of the shutdown and are worried about more pain to come.

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SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. — For one tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the government shutdown comes with a price tag: about $100,000, every day, of federal money that does not arrive to keep health clinics staffed, food pantry shelves full and employees paid.

The tribe is using its own funds to cover the shortfalls for now. But if the standoff in Washington continues much longer, that stopgap money will be depleted. Later this month, workers could be furloughed and health services could be pared back. “Everything,” said Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe, “is on the table.”

For many Americans who are not federal workers or contractors, a shutdown is a minor inconvenience. A trip to a national park may be canceled. A call to a government office may go unanswered. But for Native American tribes, which rely heavily on federal money to operate, a shutdown can cripple their most basic functions.

Federal employees, supporters demonstrate at Sacramento International Airport. (AP Photo / Rich Pedroncelli)
Federal employees, supporters demonstrate at Sacramento International Airport. (AP Photo / Rich Pedroncelli)

Partial government shutdown

All across Indian Country, the federal shutdown slices deep. Generations ago, tribes negotiated treaties with the U.S. government guaranteeing funds for services like health care and education in exchange for huge swaths of territory.

“The federal government owes us this: We prepaid with millions of acres of land,” said Payment, who also criticized the shutdown Monday from the stage at his tribe’s New Year’s powwow. “We don’t have the right to take back that land, so we expect the federal government to fulfill its treaty and trust responsibility.”

On the Navajo Nation, a mostly rural reservation of red rock canyon that spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, the government shutdown has already been difficult, said Russell Begaye, the Navajo Nation’s president.

A blanket of snow has covered the region, but roads are unplowed because federal maintenance has stopped. Many people are now trapped in their homes, unable to make the 20- or 50-mile journey to buy water, groceries and medicine, Begaye said.

The Interior Department’s Indian Affairs bureau provides basic services to about 1.9 million American Indians and Alaska Natives, often by funneling funds to the tribes to administer the services themselves or by employing federal workers to run the programs. This means that services from law enforcement to tribal courts, disaster relief and road maintenance are often completed by tribal employees whose salaries rely on federal funding — or by federal workers, some of whom are tribal citizens.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs was set to furlough 2,662 of 4,490 employees during a shutdown, meaning at least some of those services and salaries will be slowed or stopped.

Because the federal government contributes to the salaries of many members of the Navajo Nation, Begaye said the lack of pay will hurt families on the reservation, where a single salary can support a family of six, 10 or even 12 people. Begaye said loan sharks had started circling, leaving flyers on cars and doorsteps.

“It just kind of snowballs into our people doing things that they know they shouldn’t do and further financially obligating themselves,” Begaye said. “They have to keep their heater going. They have to keep their water on.”

On the Bois Forte Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, tribal officials have instituted a hiring freeze and are planning to meet this week to discuss budget cuts. Cathy Chavers, the tribe’s chairwoman, said tribal functions were continuing for now, but “it will probably come down to minimal, minimal basic services” if the shutdown lasts another month.

Already, police officers on her reservation, who are employees of the federal government and not the tribe, were being forced to work without pay.

“These officers are putting their lives on the line,” Chavers said, “and they don’t know if they’re going to get a paycheck or not.”

Tribes are making plans for how much longer they can operate, while not knowing whether they will be reimbursed for shutdown-related expenses.

Officials with the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin said that they had made contingency plans but that they could manage at least another month without any cuts. The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes in Idaho posted on Facebook that they had enough money to operate at full strength through Saturday but would then have to re-evaluate.

“Things do grind to a halt,” said Kevin Washburn, who served as assistant secretary for Indian Affairs under President Barack Obama. “Indian Country stops moving forward” during a shutdown, Washburn said, “and starts moving backward.”

A spokesman for the Interior Department, reached on New Year’s Eve, said so many people were out of the office for the holiday, or furloughed, that he had no information about the way the shutdown was playing out in Indian Country.

“Literally, there’s a handful of people that are currently excepted and able to work,” said spokesman John Bockmier about his office. “I just don’t have any details from around the country to give you,” he went on, “because there is no one out there that is currently able to provide that information for me.”

For tribes, this has become a familiar, painful scenario. In 2013, during Obama’s presidency, a lengthy shutdown forced a California tribe to close its child-care program. In Minnesota, a tribe postponed nonemergency medical procedures. And the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa in Michigan lost several employees to layoffs, including hard-to-replace medical workers who did not return after that shutdown ended.

With those bad memories in mind, the Sault Chippewa tribal council approved a resolution last month (on the same day President Donald Trump sparred with Democratic leaders about a border wall on television) that allowed leaders to shuffle funds if federal money stopped flowing. That step has delayed the worst of the pain, but it can help only for so long. Already, tribal officials have sent a memo encouraging frugality and canceled the purchase of a new computer server.

“We’re not going to collapse. We may have to decide, ‘What we can do with our own funding?’” said Christine McPherson, the Sault Chippewa Tribe’s executive director. “But we’ll never close.”

There have been some efforts to limit the effects. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., introduced a bill last month that would have maintained funding for the Indian Health Service during a shutdown. His proposal did not make it to a vote, but Mullin, who said “I have no read on how long” the shutdown would last, said he hoped his idea would gain bipartisan traction if the broader impasse stretches on.

“This is a true federal obligation to treaties to Native Americans,” said Mullin, who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and who received health care at an Indian Health Service facility while growing up. “This is different than really any other government agency.”

The shutdown also curtailed a Department of Agriculture food program that helped feed about 90,000 Native American people in fiscal year 2017. Chairman Joseph Rupnick of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, headquartered in northeast Kansas, said he feared the effect that this would have on his members.

“Those stores will be depleted,” Rupnick said of the tribe’s food distribution center. “When they’re going through a shutdown, they’re thinking: ‘I need 5 billion for a wall. I need dollars for this or that.’ The bottom line is it always impacts the neediest people in the country.”

The shutdown has further eroded many Native Americans’ confidence in the federal government, which they said had never lived up to lofty promises made in long-ago treaties. “I believe very strongly that it adversely affects a population that is already adversely affected by the United States government,” said Harry Barnes, a former chairman of Montana’s 17,000-member Blackfeet Nation.