Partial shutdown of the federal government is producing a complete shutdown of many tribal offices; tribal leaders struggle to sustain essential services

The partial shutdown of the federal government is—for the moment–only indirectly felt by many Americans. But on the nation’s Indian reservations, where federal funding is vital for the day-to-day operation of many programs and services, the impact is sweeping.

In many communities, offices responsible for the health, welfare, and safety of tribal members are closed, facing closure, or working without funds, according our informal survey of tribal college administrators and tribal policy experts.

On the Fort Belknap Reservation of eastern Montana, Scott Friskics, director of sponsored programs at Aaniiih Nakoda College, said that many tribal offices are completely shut down. “That includes the Environmental Protection Department, Water Quality and Water Resources,” he said.

“The more I talk with folks here, the worse it sounds,” he said.

On the Lake Traverse Reservation of South Dakota, Scott Morgan, director of institutional research and programs at Sisseton Wahpeton College, also reported the imminent closure of tribal programs that depend on federal funds. “If it continues much longer, more of the tribal agencies are going to have serious funding issues and will start shutting down,” he said.

The need to maintain infrastructure and essential services means that many tribal employees are working without pay. “On the Turtle Mountain Reservation of North Dakota, “many BIA and other federal employees are still working because in the winter it does not take long for pipes to freeze, roads to close, vehicles to break down,” reported Carty Monette, retired president of Turtle Mountain Community College and a senior associate at the Tribal Nations Research Group.

Medical care is a growing concern. Tribal clinics operating under contract with the Indian Health Service depend on federal funds to keep doors open and staff paid. However, in a letter to tribal leaders, the IHS stated that, without an appropriation, it cannot pay tribes or tribal organizations contracting under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

“We acknowledge that this circumstance may result in insufficient funds to carry out the terms of the agreement and that the program may cease to operate,” the letter continued.

On the Turtle Mountain Reservation, Monette reported that ambulance and emergency services are still provided by IHS staff, who are working without paychecks. “But who knows how long that will last,” he said.  “It costs money beyond salaries to keep the IHS operating.”

The 183 schools run or funded by the Bureau of Indian Education are among the least affected, largely because they are forward funded. To keep other programs operating, tribes are making use of carryover or unspent funds, when available. “But like the federal agencies, this too will soon run out,” Monette said.

“The banks may make interim loans to some entities but bank cooperation is also uncertain.  The loans that may be made will for sure be at a huge interest rate,” Monette said.

Here, at last, is something that tribal leaders and President have in common: unpaid bills and empty offices. According the New York Times, the White House has stopped paying its water bill much of its staff are gone.

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