The federal government shutdown is hitting American Indians harder than most people, with jobs on hold and critical funds cut to some of the nation’s poorest communities.
Under treaties stretching back to before the founding of the country, the U.S. government pays for basic economic needs to Indian nations, including health services, education and infrastructure. Nearly all funding has been cut since the shutdown began Dec. 22, however, leaving Indian governments to dip into reserves or make cuts.
“We are in a cash-flow crisis,” Darrell Seki, chairman of the Red Lake Nation in northern Minnesota, said Monday. “But we are doing everything we can not to lay off people and to keep up services.”
As well, Indian reservations have a higher proportion of federal employees than most parts of the country except for the Washington, D.C., area, making the lack of income resulting from the furlough of employees an acute economic problem.
On some reservations in the Dakotas and other Western states, the income has been cut to more than 1,000 people, leading to a ripple in spending and consumption that is affecting thousands more.
“People are suffering,” said Patrice Kunesh, director of the Center for Indian Country Development at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, which has been studying the effects across the country.
“Many of the furloughed employees are one-income families,” she added. “Small businesses that depend on tribal spending are having a hard time. Even the relief programs are feeling pain.”
Many Indians rely on the federal Indian Health Service for essential needs and a special banking system that processes land leases and other payments. The poor rely on a federal food distribution system. All of those services — along with the lead agency that deals with Indians, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) — have been closed by the shutdown.
“The BIA is AWOL,” Seki said. He said he would like to see President Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate leader Mitch McConnell visit an Indian reservation to see the effects firsthand.
The Red Lake Nation suspended construction of two fire halls and a dialysis treatment center while it waits for the federal government to reopen, but it has maintained health services, Seki said.
The Bureau of Indian Education and most related schools have remained open because that agency’s funding is scheduled differently. That bureau sent funds to schools weeks or months ago for today’s operations.
Kunesh said fund transfers are staggered, however, and that some Indian schools that ran out of federal funds may have to be supported locally until the shutdown ends.
The federal government’s outsized role on Indian life is rooted in history. In hundreds of treaties dating as far back as 1774, the government agreed to assist tribes that ceded vast tracts of land to the United States.
To some, the shutdown represents another moment when the government has abrogated its responsibilities to the country’s 5 million Indians.
“Once again we have failed to meet our trust and treaty responsibilities to tribal nations,” Rep. Betty McCollum of St. Paul said at a hearing on the shutdown’s impact on Indians last week by the Democratic Steering and Policy committee.
In some reservations, federal agencies employ one out of six people. In North and South Dakota, the Indian Health Service is one of the state’s largest employers.
On Friday, the Federation of Indian Service Employees, a union representing federal workers across Indian Country, filed suit against the government for failing to pay people who were ordered to keep working during the shutdown.