As the US government shutdown goes into day 25, it is now the longest US shutdown ever. While many are suffering from this crisis created by Trump’s demands for his wall, Indigenous people are faring the worst. Treaty-guaranteed rights to health care, food and other services are going unmet, endangering the lives of Native people.
Indian Health Services (IHS) and the USDA Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations aren’t receiving the necessary funds to operate. Indian Health Services provides medical care to members and citizens of state and federally recognized Indigenous nations within the occupied US. While the reservation-based Indian Health Services facilities have received some funds, all urban Indian Health Services facilities have gone unfunded. This is particularly devastating, given that 70 percent of Native people are urban-based.
Kerry Hawk Lessard, a Shawnee descendant and executive director of Native American Lifelines — an Indian Health Services agency that serves Native people in the Baltimore and Boston metropolitan areas — has had to make some heartbreaking decisions. Lifelines serves its communities through the purchase of care reimbursements for medical expenses, dental, behavioral health, and cultural and community-based services. Before the shutdown began, Indian Health Services owed two months of reimbursements totaling $130,000 to Lifelines, according to Lessard. The agency had to immediately operate on its reserves and suspend services when the shutdown began. “You have this right to health care that your ancestors paid for with land and blood and genocide,” Lessard told Truthout.
Even in the best of times, urban Native people are often going without care. Since 2016, there has been a 1.26 percent drop in Indian Health Services funding. The 2018 Presidential Budget funds for Indian Health Services break down to only $1,634.24 per Native for the entire year. The situation is even more dire for urban-based Natives. They receive only 23 cents per person from IHS.
“Our people have been moved around like chess pieces,” Lessard said. “Just because you’re not living on the reservation, your tribal citizenship doesn’t change just because your address does.”
Joye Braun of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota told Truthout that nurses at the Indian Health Services facility in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, were going unpaid and having to walk to work because they can’t afford gas. As is the case in many rural areas, access to basic needs such as food and health care is limited, and meeting these needs is often much more expensive than in urban areas.
“Many programs that are trust responsibilities of the government — services we’ve paid for with land and resources and forcible removal — are dependent on federal dollars,” Braun said. “Health care, police officers and other federal employees are working without pay. What’s going to happen when services are stopped and tribes who already face huge economic disparages can’t cover costs for basic services? People already can’t afford gas, or food, and the president doesn’t think this is hard enough?”
Congressman Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma introduced H.R. 7362 on December 20, 2018, to fund Indian Health Services for fiscal year 2019. This bill would “ensure that tribally-run hospitals and Urban Indian Clinics receive the funding they need to pay their doctors and keep their doors open.” However, the bill has stalled, and Mullin, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, supports President Trump and his $5.8 billion wall. Despite his efforts to fund IHS during the shutdown, he’s one of the many Republicans who are continuing the shutdown by supporting the border wall. Despite repeated attempts, Mullin, didn’t respond to media requests.
Meanwhile, on January 11, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier announced that the employees of the Indian Health Services Eagle Butte Service Unit “will be paid next week for their service.” While this is good news, it still raises the question of how Native people and the employees under these nations and federal programs are able to survive.
Food insecurity and starvation are not anomalies to Native people in the US. Native families are 400 percent more likely to report being food insecure. One in four Native people suffers from food insecurity compared to the national average of one in eight. Only 1.2 percent of total SNAP recipients nationally are Native, but in some states the local percentages are much higher. For example, Alaska has the highest population of recognized Native people and 36.3 percent of the Native community in that state receives SNAP, representing 12 percent of total Alaskan SNAP recipients. South Dakota is home to the poorest county in the US, where the Pine Ridge Reservation resides. Almost 30 percent of South Dakota Natives receive SNAP. Despite this dire need, because of the shutdown, SNAP has only been funded through the end of February.
In addition to SNAP, recognized tribal nations receive food from the US government on reservations through the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. This food is often referred to as “commodity boxes” and is intended to supplement food access in areas with low rates of grocery stores and higher food prices. During the 2013 shutdown, the food rotted in a warehouse because there were no funds to distribute it. The program isn’t receiving federal funds during the current shutdown and is only operational on a local level with remaining funds and commodities. I visited the Department of Agriculture’s headquarters in Washington, DC, in hopes of obtaining answers to this travesty, but found that no one was in the program office. The Acting Director Diane Cullo and Deputy Director Linda Cronin didn’t respond to media requests.
When queried on the state of shutdown negotiations, Erinn Robinson, Republican Press Secretary for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, told Truthout, “Negotiations continue to find an agreement to fund the remaining 25 percent of government and border security” and that the committee has been pressing to mitigate the impacts of the shutdown.
The effects of the shutdown on Indigenous communities go far beyond the denial of food distribution and food stamps — the shutdown is also affecting access to benefits such as child care assistance.
Lisa McConkey (Ahtena Athabaskan of the Neltsiine clan) is at risk of losing her child care assistance for her six-month-old daughter in February. McConkey’s child care costs are $250 a week, and she receives $17 per day in assistance. When describing the situation, she expressed fear that she could fall into the “welfare net.”
“I need this to survive,” she said. “If I can’t work, I can’t provide. Once you’re on welfare it’s so hard to get out.” If she loses her assistance, then she’ll be without care and forced to quit her job as a call agent at the RDI call center. She’s even at risk of having to leave her current home of Highland Heights, Kentucky, to return to her childhood home of Kluti-Kaah, Alaska. “We’re being forced to not live wherever we want in the country,” she said.
Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) is one of the first two Native women elected to Congress. The Congresswoman told Truthout that the shutdown has had a devastating and disproportionate effect on tribes.
“I’ve heard stories about families not getting necessary doctor appointments through IHS because this shutdown severely limits the services they provide,” she said. “The effects on tribal law enforcement, road maintenance during snowstorms and other fundamental needs have detrimental impacts for Indian Country.” She added that going forward, she’ll be looking at new proposals to alleviate the loss of basic services for tribes during future shutdowns.
Ending the shutdown will alleviate some of the burdens Indigenous people face, but not all of them. Between fiscal years 1998 and 2016, there were 6,915 migrant deaths reported along the border. The numbers of deaths aren’t accurate, however, because Border Patrol only counts the deaths on the US side. Many of these “migrants” are Indigenous people from Central and South America who are trying to escape dire situations of poverty and violence, much of which is a result of the colonization by and interference of white-created nations, such as the US. It’s estimated that these Indigenous people are eight times more likely to die attempting to cross the border now than a decade ago. In December 2018, two Indigenous children died while in Border Patrol custody.
How many more Indigenous lives will be lost during the shutdown due to the machinations of colonialist demands for a wall? Even when the government finally returns to work, the genocide of Indigenous people still won’t end.