Interim Executive Director Susan Masten gives an interview to Marketplace radio about the looming federal government shutdown.
The looming government shutdown is bad news for tribal communities around the country.
Because of the nation-to-nation relationship tribes have with the United States and the federal government’s treaty responsibility, everything from police and fire departments to child care centers and food distribution programs in many parts of Indian Country are funded or operated by the federal government.
During shutdowns, tribes are forced to float those services out of their own coffers. Or go without.
Some tribes lose access to their revenue routed through the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. But tribal leaders say it doesn’t have to be that way.
During the government shutdown in 2013, leaders of the Yurok Tribe in Northern California had to take a hard look at their budget.
“We had a small reserve of $3 million,” said Susan Masten, who was vice chair at the time. “That was not enough to carry through with salaries and with programs.”
The nation was forced to furlough about 70 employees. Scholarships went unpaid. Families had to make do without child care. Things Masten said Yurok people were owed.
“The government has that trust responsibility and a fiduciary obligation to tribes,” Masten said.
That obligation is based on treaties in which tribes ceded hundreds of millions of acres of land to the United States in exchange for health care, education, housing and other things.
“The tribes have upheld their bargain,” said Jay Spaan, who heads up the nonprofit Self-Governance Communication and Education Tribal Consortium.
But tribal leaders say Congress isn’t holding up its end when it fails to safeguard crucial funding.
“We view these federal dollars as payment on debt,” said Liz Malerba with United South and Eastern Tribes.
Malerba said Congress recognizes that on some level. Last year, it started funding the Indian Health Service a year in advance to protect tribal hospitals and clinics.
But Malerba said the IHS is just one crucial service that tribes lose access to during shutdowns.
“If the federal government were to move all tribal nation funding over to the mandatory side of the budget” instead of the discretionary side, where it lives right now, “that funding would then be insulated, Malerba said.
Insulated from funding impasses that have become routine and that tribal nations can’t afford.