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Shutdown frustrates Indian tribes with federal guarantees

January 14, 2019

Federal employees being forced to work without pay is having an outsized impact on Eagle Butte, South Dakota, which is the seat of government for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe on their reservation west of the Missouri River and has a population of about 1,300 according to the 2010 census.

“We have probably three restaurants, four gas stations, one Subway, one Dairy Queen and a Family Dollar. That’s a small amount of retail,” said Remi Bald Eagle, intergovernmental affairs coordinator for the Cheyenne River Sioux. “And now you have 200 employees not getting paid on this reservation. That’s going to have a huge impact on our small economy.”

Most of the unpaid workers are employed by the Indian Health Service, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, or by a third-party health care contractor, Mr. Bald Eagle said in a telephone interview.

The Indian Health Service, which operates the hospital in Eagle Butte and two other reservation clinics, told The Washington Times that its workers will remain on the job throughout the federal government shutdown.

Tribal officers said Washington has given them little information about the shutdown.

“I can’t get a hold of anyone,” said Mr. Bald Eagle, who has been calling the Department of Agriculture to find out how to compensate tribal members on food stamp benefits. “And that goes across the board with other agencies, too.”

More than half of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ 4,000 workers in 34 states have been furloughed, and nearly 300 of the bureau’s law enforcement officers are working without pay.

“We are doing what we can,” said a senior administrative official who spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity. “We’re monitoring what we have available for public safety, justice, child protection services and other life/safety/protection of property buckets, just like every other agency.”

But pressure is mounting in Indian country, where tribal governments rely largely on federal dollars guaranteed by treaties.

“Our people’s safety has been compromised because our roads are not fully maintained in this winter weather season, our health care system is feeling the pinch, and if this continues for much longer a variety of services could be affected both directly and indirectly,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said Friday in a press release urging President Trump to end the shutdown.

Mr. Trump has been locked in a standoff with congressional Democrats over funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Leadership of tribal organizations, including the National Indian Child Welfare Association and the National Congress of American Indians, have urged reconciliation in Congress.

“America’s longstanding, legally-mandated obligations to tribal nations should be honored no matter the political quarrels of the moment,” read a Thursday letter signed by eight tribal officials and addressed to Mr. Trump and congressional leaders of both parties.

The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 authorizes many of the 573 federally recognized tribes to operate semiautonomously of the federal government, allowing them to receive and distribute federal funds to contractors as they see fit.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a division of the Department of the Interior, has funds to last through the academic year for its 184 schools and teachers and support staff serving nearly 50,000 students.

“How long will this [play] out?” Mr. Bald Eagle said of the shutdown. “If it goes to June, July? [Tribal schools are] looking at operation and maintenance funding then. We need permanent solutions to permanent problems in the federal government.”

He said the tribal government is pressing state lawmakers in Congress to seek a compromise on the border wall.

Sen. John Hoeven, North Dakota Republican and chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said in a statement to The Times: “The committee continues to monitor all the impacts to Indian programs as it relates to the partial government shutdown. The committee has been reassured by the administration that they will apply maximum effort to mitigate any delay in services.”