– More than 1,000 miles from Capitol Hill, Karen Diver says her people are bearing the brunt of Congress’ budget battles as federal budget cuts ravage funding for schools and health care on Minnesota’s tribal reservations.

With Republicans and Democrats engaged in talks to minimize or reorder the broad sequestration spending cuts that began in March, pessimistic American Indian leaders are prepping for another round of reductions.

During a recent three-day lobbying push in Washington, D.C., Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, testified before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, while Melanie Benjamin, who leads the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, met with President Obama as part of the White House Tribal Nations Conference.

Their message: Unless a deal is reached to halt the cuts, Indian Country will suffer even more.

“When push comes to shove, we need people there saying ‘Not in Indian Country,’ ” Diver pleaded during her Senate testimony. “It’s too important, the situation’s too dire, they’ve come too far, and we’re not going to be a part of pushing them back.”

Diver placed blame at the feet of the Republican-led U.S. House, which has sought long-term reforms to entitlement programs in exchange for easing the cuts known as sequestration. But congressional leaders from both parties proposed the fail-safe budget cuts as a means of ending budget gridlock.

When lawmakers approved the sequestration cuts, they exempted many programs that aid low-income Americans, such as Medicaid and food stamps. Few of the programs supporting American Indians were spared.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Services lost 5 percent of their funding this year. Tribal leaders expect a 9 percent reduction — about $19 billion — next year if Congress doesn’t act.

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and her Congressional Native American Caucus co-chair, Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma, failed in their effort to protect Indian Health Services from sequestration.

“Tell us who we need to haunt in the House please,” Diver said. “What they’re doing is immoral.”

The Star Tribune could not reach Republican U.S. Rep. John Kline, a member of the Native American Caucus who represents the southern Twin Cities suburbs, for comment.

Hit hard

Through the sequestration and federal government shutdown, Minnesota tribes have felt the effect.

On Fond du Lac, housing projects have stalled and Head Start transportation routes have been scrapped. The Red Lake Band of Chippewa abandoned plans to hire a primary care doctor this fall, and if the 2014 cuts go through, it will lose its only pediatric dentist and two dental assistants, said Dave Conner, a tribal official who manages Red Lake’s government services. During the federal government shutdown, Red Lake was forced to delay nonemergency medical procedures because it lacked supplies.

“We’re adding problem on top of problem on top of problem,” Sen. Al Franken said during the Indian Affairs Committee hearing.

During the Tribal Nations Conference, Obama said, “For many tribal nations, this year’s harmful sequester cuts and last month’s government shutdown made a tough situation worse. Your schools, your police departments, child welfare offices are all feeling the squeeze.”

Fearing the worst

The annual tribal conference gave Indian leaders a chance to lay out what they want from Washington in the coming year. An end to sequestration tops the list, but Diver is not optimistic.

“That would take a cooperative House and Senate, and we have not seen that with other issues,” she said.

The tribes contend that the government has perennially underfunded tribal programs and failed to meet treaty obligations to Indians. Paired with the sequestration, the tribal leaders now feel they’re being shortchanged on multiple fronts.

“The current and future sequestration cuts amount to unpaid bills in Indian Country which hurt the people who need these services the most, the poorest of the poor throughout tribal communities,” said Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians and chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community of Washington state.

When Benjamin and 11 other tribal leaders met with Obama and top aides in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, the conversation on economic development shifted to economic difficulties.

“We are basically the first to be cut and cut again,” Benjamin said.

During her testimony, Driver ticked off accomplishments, such as advances in preventive health care and affordable housing, that could be rolled back if the funding cuts continue.

“You’re taking away our ability to rise up and help support our communities,” she said.


Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell