Congressional hearing looks at the impact of shutdown on Indian Country

Rep. Sharice Davids, Deb Haaland, and House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul M. Grijalva (Photo via Facebook Live.)

Mark Trahant

Federal government shutdown nears a month. Growing impact on Indian Country and the U.S. economy

Graphic by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today

Indian Country Today interactive spreadsheets:

Impact of shutdown on tribal communities

Impact on individuals, nonprofits

What the shutdown looks like in a community

Debra Haaland’s campaign slogan was that she would be the voice that Congress has never heard. On Tuesday, at a hearing of Democrats about the impact of the government shutdown on Indian Country, Rep. Haaland’s voice was not only heard, it was afforded a respect that’s been missing from the conversation. She and her colleague Rep. Sharice Davids, asked the first questions at the hearing, despite nearly all of their colleagues being more senior.

Then that makes sense. The hearing was about Indian Country -- and a time for new voices.

The hearing was put together by House Natural Resources Chairman Raul M. Grijalva from Arizona and chaired by Co-Chair of the House Steering and Policy Committee Rosa DeLauro from Connecticut.

Rep. DeLauro said she views the shutdown as “cruel, and unnecessary.”

But that's because there is a failure to govern. The House of Representatives cannot end the shutdown on its own. It has already passed spending bills and needs that legislation to be considered by the Senate and signed into law by the president. (Or passed with a two-thirds majority in both houses to override a presidential veto.) The president won't budge unless Congress writes a check to begin a border wall. And nothing has changed in almost a month.

So House Democrats heard from people who are feeling the pain from a failure to govern.

“The money to operate our facility has effectively stopped coming in, but the patients have not stopped needing healthcare,” said Kerry Hawk Lessard, Shawnee. She works with Native Lifelines, urban Indian clinics in Baltimore and Boston, and also represented the National Council on Urban Indian Health. She said the government shutdown mean dire consequences for “a sizable number of our user population constitutes of tribal citizens working for the federal government or ihs employees in Rockville, Maryland, who have access to IHS hospitals and clinics on their homelands, but not here where they're working and living.”

She said that the lack of funding will impact patients ranging from their chronic pain management to medicines to control diabetes.

“We have had six clients overdose on opioids and the last two months and two-thirds of these overdoses were fatalities,” Lessard said. “It's unthinkable that we will not be able to assist in a time of such great need as our program has now effectively closed.”

Across the country the situation is as bleak. Lessard said many of the 41 urban Indian clinics were already struggling financially and “only five could sustain normal operations or one month or less. We are 25 days into this shutdown and most will not be able to stay open much longer.”

Mary Trottier, who works with the Spirit Lake food distribution program in North Dakota, said federal food delivery programs serve 100,000 people each month in 276 Native communities “with little or no access to grocery stores or transportation to the stores to redeem SNAP (food stamp) benefits.”

She said a significant number of elders rely on that food. “Nearly half of our participants are over the age of 60 and the average age of our participants is 54,” she said. “Over half are currently employed, but need the help of our program to help our program offers to make ends meet each month.”

The problem will only get worse after January 30 because then the warehouses will run out of funding to continue operations because there is no one to receive the food. “We may miss out on some foods entirely even though they have already been purchased for our participants,” she said.

And, at the same time, because of the government shutdown more people are seeking food. “Many in our in communities are furloughed federal employees who are working without pay are now requesting to apply for the program since they have no income to support and feed their families,” she said. Some won’t qualify. “So our tribal governments have to choose between providing food or medicine for our most vulnerable people. During this shutdown, we're told to make do with what little we have in indian country … we have already been making do with very little for a long time. If the shutdown contInues, we may be forced to make do with nothing. “

Chairman Aaron Payment (Photo Facebook Live)

Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan, said his tribe ceded 14 million acres of land “in exchange for our rights to hunt and gather and fish and health education and social welfare into perpetuity tribes.”

“Our tribal welfare hangs in the balance,” he said. “We prepaid into our federal funding. Since we cannot foreclose on the land, we expect the federal government to fulfill the treaty and trust and responsibility. I'm here to remind the trump administration that your mortgage payment is due.”

Payment is a vice president of the National Congress of American Indians. He said across the country many of the tribes “already subsidize the federal government's financial obligation.”

“Ironically,” Payment said, “the Americans most affected by immigration over the last 500 years continued to be the most heavily impacted by the shuttering of multiple federal agencies that are unrelated to securing our homeland. We rely on federal funding to administer key government services, healthcare facilities, public safety, housing, access, nutrition and food distribution and social service.”

Rep. Haaland, D-New Mexico, Laguna Pueblo, asked Chairman Payment, “ve you ever seen a crisis as devastating as this to your community?

“I haven't seen anything like this. We went through the shutdown and sequestrations the last time, but we haven't seen anything this threatening,” he said. “I have family members who are using Vivitrol as medical assisted treatment to prevent them from overdosing from preventing them from going to the street to get fentanyl and overdosing. And so this really is life threatening … and so this is, this is a crisis like we've never seen.”

Rep. Davids, D-Kansas, Ho Chunk, said she wondered about the long-term ramification of the furloughs.

Payment said in many regions tribes are large employers. The Colville Tribe in Washington is losing $400,000 a day because it cannot harvest timber during the closure. He said Native contractors and Alaskan Native corporations are losing about a quarter of a million dollars per day. And some 300 federal contractors are on furlough. He said: “So when we talk about how do we make tribe self-reliant, self-determined, it's not only a matter of providing the services that are required per the treaties, it's also helping tribes when they are finding ways to stimulate economies so that we aren't losing ground there as well.”

“The entire community suffers when we suffer,” Payment said.

The last government shutdown cost tribe his about a million dollars in lost revenue and this one is already costing about $100,000 a day.

And the economic cost of the government shutdown is increasing rapidly. CNBC reports that the The White House now estimates that the month long shutdown is costing more than twice as much as projected. “The administration had initially counted just the impact from the 800,000 federal workers not receiving their paychecks,” CNBC said. “But they now believe the impact doubles, due to greater losses from private contractors also out of work and other government spending and functions that won’t occur.”

However in Indian Country the damage could be lasting. Patrice Kunesh authored a new report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Center for Indian Country Development. She wrote: “At a broad level, government employment is disproportionately high in Indian Country. The Public Administration, or government sector, accounts for about 12.5 percent of all jobs in the group of 267 federally recognized reservations we’ve studied.”

“In addition, tribal governments depend substantially on federal funding to deliver services on behalf of federal agencies under contract-like “compacts” with these agencies. We assume that the combined dependence on direct federal jobs and federally funded jobs is distinctly higher on reservations than in most rural counties (where it is already higher than in most urban areas),” Kunesh wrote. “All told, the federal government shutdown is affecting Indian Country in substantial and unique ways.”

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports


The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.

Previous stories:

President walks away from a Republican with a plan to reopen government

Waiting for a thaw in Washington

Out of touch? White House says unpaid workers are 'better off'

Tribal leaders say government closure puts citizens in jeopardy

Government Shutdown: Tribes suffer job losses, bad roads, no healthcare access

Comments (2)

You have a man sitting there next "asleep" or "drunk" (notorious) that spend one whole week in Puerto Rico (beaches, and entertainment) last week! Raul Grijalva, DEM spent one week in Puerto with 37 other US Congressional sunning and partying whilst the Nation/Country/Tribes were in the midst of this partial insensitive and thoughtless to travel away last week. If "this" was not a crisis last week for Democrats, why is "it" a crisis now this week?

No. 1-2

Just because Democrats say its a "crisis" doesn't necessarily mean it is! in fact, (taking words from Jim Acosta-CNN), i have been the reservation to and one the reservation over the week-end, there is NOTHING occurring and its almost kinda of tranquil.......people still driving to Gallup and back. Still people asking for handouts. Navajo people still just kinda of living - like it was no other day that was different!