Before rushing off to recess, the House and Senate hastily passed a bill Friday to address flight delays that were inconveniencing air travelers while leaving the rest of sequestration’s devastating cuts in place, including those affecting tribal nations and American Indian and Alaska Native citizens. Actions like this leave Indian Country wondering where the trust responsibility fits into Congress’ priorities. The bill allows the Transportation Department to shift some airport infrastructure funding to pay air traffic controllers. Although delays in air travel are inconvenient, so many other less publicized sequestration cuts are far more damaging to Indian Country.
Tribes across the country are beginning to witness the real effects of sequestration – reductions that violate the trust, treaty, and statutory obligations to Indian Country. NCAI released an analysis of federal reductions to Indian Country last week, but we must share our stories to convince lawmakers that the trust and treaty obligations to tribes, so important to our children, families, and seniors, are every bit as important as passengers waiting for their flights.
NCAI urges tribes and service providers to take action: share your story with your Congressional delegation as well as the media, and help end the sequester.
Tribes and agencies are starting to implement sequester reductions to the Indian Health Service, social services, Head Start, school districts (due to Impact Aid cuts), law enforcement, tribal courts, general assistance payments, and many other important governmental services considered discretionary spending. Sequestration has resulted in funding levels that are too low to meet the government’s operating expenses – including the treaty obligations to tribes such as education and health care. The impacts of cuts to tribal communities may be less obvious to Congress than delayed air travel, but these obligations deserve their attention even more.
If Congress can act this hastily for air travelers, it should do the same for Indian Country. Urge Congress to replace the sequester with deficit-reduction solutions that uphold the trust and treaty obligations to tribal nations.
Stories from One Tribe
Chairman Kevin Keckler of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe testified last week about the effects of sequestration, described below. Many tribes are facing situations similar to what the Chairman and local clergy depict below.
Ministers Are Emptying Their Freezers and Cupboards
Rev. Margaret Watson, an Episcopalian priest serving the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, says that sequestration has already “cut to the bone here on the reservation.” Due to reductions to Social Services workers, “the clients themselves have been cut off –they have received no monies since the beginning of March. They are coming to my door asking for heating fuel, food, clothes, diapers. Children are at risk. There are no Tribal programs that can assist these folks, they are mostly disabled, elderly with grandchildren in the home, or are desperate for work. Last night, after a funeral, I delivered left over food to people’s homes. Funeral food to a family of six of baloney sandwiches, biscuits, two apples, two oranges and some chocolate cake.”
She says she cannot afford to feed all the people who come to her door asking for help. “I have emptied my own freezer, my own cupboard in order to help these desperate folks.” She asks of Congress, “Have you all become so twisted up in your political lives that you have forgotten the people you have been called to serve?”
She continues, “I would like to invite [Congress] and anyone else who is interested to come and stay here for ten days. Just ten days. I would like you to open my door and hear the stories, see the faces, see the desperation and despair. I would like you to feed the people from my freezer –and when it is empty explain to them why it is they have to go hungry and cold. I would like you to attend the funeral I would probably do sometime in that 10 days and see the faithfulness, the generosity, the generational grief. I would like you to come with me on home visits and see the extreme poverty out of which that faithfulness and generosity and grief springs… Don’t punish the children and the elderly and the poor and the disabled by cutting the programs that at least keep them alive at poverty levels.”
Read Rev. Watson’s entire letter to Congress here.
Hurting the Poorest Among Us
Chairman Keckler testified that, “Our General Assistance Program provided a small but essential monetary supplement to our most impoverished members to help them pay their utility or other necessities not covered by other programs. Now with sequester and other budget limitations, the BIA is no longer able to provide that assistance. Because we live in an unfriendly environment where our local utility company does not hesitate to turn off customers’ lights and heat for unpaid bills, even in the dead of winter when temperatures can fall to -20 degrees, the Tribe had no choice but to step in and pick up the shortfall.”
The tribe’s entire year’s budget was spent by January, and “we have now exhausted all available funds from other tribal welfare programs trying to make up the shortfall in the cash relief program. This unanticipated draw on the tribal budget for cash relief to our neediest members in these cold winter months has forced us to take money from other critical non-welfare line items and reallocate it to members’ utility bills and other essential needs. We are robbing Peter to make sure Paul and his children do not freeze to death in their own home.”
Cuts to Law Enforcement
“We have experienced a similar type of Hobson’s choice with respect to law enforcement and our criminal justice system on the reservation. Faced with a desperate shortage of patrol officers to cover all shifts over our vast land base, our chief of police recently asked the Tribal Council for additional funding to hire three patrol officers. Our 638 contract funding for law enforcement is already insufficient to cover even the current expenses for the remainder of the fiscal year, so the police chief’s request was denied. Now what alternative does the Tribe have? Turn away helpless calls for assistance from terrified victims of domestic violence? Tell car accident victims that they are on their own for emergency medical care? Advise our grandmothers and grandfathers that we cannot help them deal with drunken and violent relatives who are beating down their doors to steal their Social Security checks?”
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN-4) has introduced a bill (H.R.1371) to restore the IHS funds sequestered under 251A of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 to the extent that the percentage reduction for that program exceeded 2 percent. Co-sponsors include Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK-4) and Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM-1).
NCAI Contact Information: Amber Ebarb, Budget and Policy Analyst – firstname.lastname@example.org
Founded in 1944, the National Congress of American Indians is the oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization in the country. NCAI advocates on behalf of tribal governments, promoting strong tribal-federal government-to-government policies, and promoting a better understanding among the general public regarding American Indian and Alaska Native governments, people and rights.