CROW AGENCY, Mont. —
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 levels. On the Fort Belknap Reservation, for example, the unemployment rate hovers around 70 percent of tribal members, King said.
“To get them out of that rut, you have to invest in them somehow. You want to encourage them to work and see what their talents are,” King said. “But if this (shutdown) continues, we’ll have to look at all of our programs individually and say can we afford this, to see what we could do to provide services to our most needy.”