What the Government Shutdown Means for Native Americans

By Ayana Byrd Jan 02, 2019

As the nation heads into day 12 of the federal government shutdown, Native American communities throughout the United States are crippled without federal money that funds basic services, including food and medical care.  

According to an article released yesterday (January 1) in The New York Times:


All across Indian Country, the federal shutdown slices deep. Generations ago, tribes negotiated treaties with the United States government guaranteeing funds for services like health care and education in exchange for huge swaths of territory.

The Times tracks the effects of the shutdown on several communities. The Chippewa Indians in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula normally receive about $100,000 a day in federal money—funds that are used to staff heath clinics and stock food pantries.

For the Navajo Nation—which is located in parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah—many people are trapped in their homes after a heavy snowfall, as federal money is used to plow roads. For some, it is a 20- to 50-mile trip to grocery stores or pharmacies.

The Bois Forte Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota currently has a police force working without pay, as its law enforcement officers are federal employees.

“Things do grind to a halt,” Kevin Washburn, who served as the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs under President Barack Obama, told The Times. “Indian Country stops moving forward [during a shutdown] and starts moving backward.”

The Department of the Interior’s Indian Affairs is a federal bureau that is tasked with providing essential services to approximately 1.9 million Native Indians and Alaska Natives. Typically this is done by sending funds to tribes, whose leaders then administer them to programs and use the money to cover the salaries of employees who run programs. "This means that services from law enforcement to tribal courts, disaster relief and road maintenance are often completed by tribal employees whose salaries rely on federal funding—or by federal workers, some of whom are tribal citizens,” reports The Times.

In addition to Indian Affairs, the shutdown has also halted a food program run by the Department of Agriculture which fed about 90,000 Native Americans in 2017.

Per The Times:


For tribes, this has become a familiar, painful scenario. In 2013, during Mr. Obama’s presidency, a lengthy shutdown forced a California tribe to close its child care program. In Minnesota, a tribe postponed nonemergency medical procedures. And the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa in Michigan lost several employees to layoffs, including hard-to-replace medical staff who did not return after that shutdown ended.

“The federal government owes us this: We prepaid with millions of acres of land,” Aaron Payment, the chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe, told The Times. “We don’t have the right to take back that land, so we expect the federal government to fulfill its treaty and trust responsibility.”