It could take days or even weeks to get backed-up funds flowing to tribal programs that are under contract with the federal government, officials said. And for many reservations, the headaches brought on by the shutdown only compounded difficulties posed by budget cuts that kicked in even before the impasse in Congress shut off payments entirely.
"When things like this happen, it usually trickles down to the poorest of the poor, and Native Americans, per capita, are in the lowest spectrum of income in the U.S.," said Brian Cladoosby, president-elect of the National Congress of American Indians and chairman of Washington state's Swinomish Tribe.
"D.C. has to get their act together. They have to quit running the government by chaos," he said. "We are getting impacted by that type of government."
There are more than 560 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes. In addition to direct federal assistance for foster care, health, education and other programs, many of them rely on the U.S. government to oversee and disburse revenues generated by reservation activities such as oil and gas development. Those funds, too, were tied up by the shutdown because the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs lacked the manpower to process payments.
On Montana's Crow Indian Reservation, about 30 home health providers were among employees that remained furloughed Thursday with no word on when they might return to work, said Todd Wilson, director of the tribe's health department.
The indefinite loss of those jobs leaves families with elderly or disabled members few options for care, tribal officials said.
California's Yurock Tribe expects to have 60 furloughed workers back on the job within 48 hours, said the tribe's vice chairman, Susan Masten. That comes after the tribe shut down a wide range of programs Oct. 7, including tutoring programs for students, funds for the elderly, college scholarships, and general assistance payments to about 50 families.
Masten said she fears that in a few months, when the current budget deal expires, those programs could be threatened yet again.
On Montana's Fort Belknap Reservation, the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes are considering taking out a loan of almost $2 million to cover the cost of home heating for the poor, medical transportation, meals for seniors and other programs that were continued through the shutdown with tribal money, said tribal President Tracy "Ching" King.
A loan would sap the tribes' budget since they would have to pay an unspecified amount of interest. But King said there was little choice, and that the money would protect against a repeat scenario should congressional budget negotiations again unravel in coming months.
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