Shutdown Stories: Regardless of shutdown, underfunded tribal programs break treaties

For Native Nations, lapses in federal funding regardless of a shutdown don’t just mean financial insecurity and diminished well-being — they represent a breech in treaty rights. 

Shutdown Stories: Regardless of shutdown, underfunded tribal programs break treaties

As the semester begins and the Federal government enters its 35rd day of a record-long partial shutdown, The Daily Cardinal is bringing you stories about what the shutdown looks like on campus and around the community. Certain government agencies have been closed since Dec. 22, and will only reopen once congress and President Trump can reach a compromise over a $5 billion border wall. 

While officials announced that the government shutdown may finally be coming to an end today — or least to a temporary pause — for Native communities across the state and around the country, the funding crisis is far from over. 

A 2018 report published by U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that, due at least in part to the failure of the federal government to adequately address the well-being of Native Americans over the last two centuries, those populations continue to rank near the bottom of all Americans in health, education and employment outcomes.

“Despite significantly increased federal spending between 1994 and 2003, the sums failed to compensate for a decline in spending power or overcome a long and sad history of neglect and discrimination,” the report said. “Native Americans living on tribal lands do not have access to the same services and programs available to other Americans, even though the government has a binding trust obligation to provide them.”

For Native Nations, lapses in federal funding regardless of a shutdown don’t just mean financial insecurity and diminished well-being — they represent a breech in treaty rights. 

“The federal services and trust responsibilities provided to the 11 federally-recognized First Nations of Wisconsin are guaranteed by treaty,” explained Aaron Bird Bear, assistant dean of the Student Diversity Program. “As such, [they] are not aid, but continuing compensation for the over-20 million acres of land directly acquired from the First Nations of Wisconsin.”

These federal resources and trust responsibilities exist today in the forms of treaty-guaranteed funding and services provided through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education, the Department of Interior, and the Indian Health Service. 

Housed in these agencies are programs like Financial Assistance and Social Services, which provides direct financial assistance, as well as funding for needs ranging from child care to emergency assistance to social services for the elderly. 

While decades of data may indicate that these programs have never been well-funded enough to make good on the promises they were founded on, their closure during the shutdown has only exacerbated financial problems across Indian Country. 

Beyond those programs, federally supported food services like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Service were poised to see their funding run out by February as well. 

Over 25 percent of native households are enrolled in those programs, with some communities reaching over 50 percent enrollment, according to a 2018 study. Nationally, enrollment is closer to 20 percent. 

“Clearly, there is a negative impact,” Bird Bear said. 

In Wisconsin, tribal nations had begun to discuss contingency plans and prepare for the worst as the shutdown pushed into day 35. 

In Lac du Flambeau, where the nation manages roughly 250 federal grants guaranteed to them as long ago as 1837, the tribal council announced that certain programs would be limited during Fiscal Year 2019.  The Housing Authority, the Lake of the Torches Casino and the Lac du Flambeau Business Development Cooperative were  among the programs impacted by the shutdown. 

“The Council takes our financial responsibilities very seriously, and we are exploring options as the shutdown continues,” said President Joseph Wildcat Sr. “We want to avoid disruptions in services wherever possible, and we are working carefully to determine the impact to our general fund and to avoid layoffs.”

But what happens to tribal economies when budgets are tight has wide impacts off tribal lands as well.

In Brown and Outagamie Counties, the Oneida tribe is one of the area’s largest employers, according to Candice Skenandore, Self-Governance Coordinator for the Oneida Nation.

“Our families are blended with others in the surrounding communities, we bring economic development into the area,” she said. “This shutdown not only impacted the Oneida Nation but because we are imbedded in the community, the surrounding areas are also affected.” 

As in Lac du Flambeau, the Oneida Nation declared that it also would consider implementing spending restrictions across its operations if the shutdown continued. Those restrictions would have lead to hiring freezes, wage adjustments, overtime elimination, travel, consultant agreements, new external donations and sponsorships and capital improvement projects.

After the 2013 shutdown, the Oneida, like many tribal nations around the country, adopted a Budget Management and Control Law. It requires leadership to create a budget contingency plan in the event the Nation ever faces extreme financial distress.

The law is designed to protect the Oneida Nation’s integrity and sovereignty, and preserve its solvency and core services.

“These preparations have better prepared the Nation for situations like this,” said Skenandore. “However, there is fear and a sense of uncertainty within the Community, particularly from those that rely on services to provide basic needs such as food, health and shelter.”

But Skenandore said her tribe was operating in a “crisis mode” even before the shutdown began, because of inadequate federal funding. Her tribe has been consistently underfunded, even though the Federal Government has a responsibility to provide funding for certain services through treaties and trust obligations.  

For example, the Oneida Nation receives less than 20 percent of the federal funding it needs to operate its Bureau of Indian Affairs programs. According to Skenandore, the missing 80 percent comes from Tribal resources and other grant funds. 

In addition, the Nation receives about 44 percent of what it needs — not to mention, was promised — to operate its health facilities and provide health care services from the Indian Health Service. 

All of those services were guaranteed to the tribe when it ceded more than 5.25 million acres of land to the federal government.

“First Nations well understood the drastic changes coming to their ways of being in ceding the majority of their ancestral lands through treaties,” Bird Bear said.  “As such, they were sophisticated in including health, food, education, and infrastructure in the treaties signed between their governments and the federal government, in addition to financial compensation for the land.”

Even if the shutdown’s end is in sight and tribal funding returns to normal, Skenandore knows that “normal” has never been enough. And if the shutdown resumes after Feb. 15, she doesn’t know how much longer her community can remain operational before it will have to begin scaling back its services.

Skenandore also said tribes don’t have to be impacted by future shutdowns. 

For one thing, Congress could provide Indian Health Services with the authority to advance its appropriations — the same authority currently afforded to the Veterans Administration. 

Congress could also transfer funding for tribal programs and services from discretionary to mandatory funding categories, the way it has for Medicaid programs.

“Steps can be taken to ensure that tribal governments are not impacted by future shutdowns,” Skenandore said. “The potential impact on the health and welfare of our Community can be avoided entirely.”

The shutdown has affected students, faculty and community members who are employed by the federal government or rely on its services. For those groups — or anyone experiencing financial insecurity — there are resources available on campus like The Open Seat, University Health Services mental health services and free lunch, which can help.

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