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Federal government shutdown hits Indian tribes hard

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CROW AGENCY, Mont. – American Indian tribes have more on the line than access to national parks 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.

Shar Siimpson, of Montana's Crow Indian Reservation, looks over a list of elderly and disabled patients whose families will have to make new arrangements for care for them. (Matthew Brown/The Associated Press)

Shar Siimpson, of Montana’s Crow Indian Reservation, looks over a list of elderly and disabled patients whose families will have to make new arrangements for care for them. (Matthew Brown/The Associated Press)

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. On the Fort Belknap Reservation, for example, the unemployment rate hovers around 70 percent of tribal members, King said.

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