As the United States (U.S.) government shutdown drags on past ten days (and counting), I have begun to fear the long-term consequences of such a halt on the most vulnerable populations in the United States. I’ve already witnessed some of the consequences for my Oneida tribe. All over the U.S., the shutdown disproportionately affects tribes and especially tribes who experience high poverty rates. While the government shutdown continues, the U.S. fails to uphold their treaty obligations to all U.S. tribes.
The U.S. government has and maintains a unique relationship with federally recognized tribes. Very early on, the U.S. government ostensibly took the position that, “The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed.” But, this position was undermined by the continuing forced relocation of indigenous peoples to open up lands for the influx of European settlers and the western migration of U.S. citizens as the U.S. expanded west of the Mississippi River. In the 1800s, a century well-known for the many military clashes between indigenous peoples and many state sanctioned massacres of indigenous peoples, some tribes took to the courts to resist their mistreatment. In the 1830s, a series of Supreme Court decisions established a federal trust responsibility toward indigenous peoples. This responsibility held that it was, “…the unique legal and moral duty of the United States to assist Indians in the protection of their property and rights.” The Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act in 1973 helped establish the relationship between the federal government and tribal governments as state-to-state relationships, but still with the understanding that the federal government has certain responsibilities to tribes.
The continuation of this government shutdown means that the federal government is, unsurprisingly given the history, not living up to those responsibilities. My tribe has already been affected most visibly in terms of receiving healthcare which, as previously noted, is a continuing problem in Indian Country. With funds diminished, we’ve had to change how we distribute medications. We’ve had to ask in-patient substance abuse program participants, who may or may not have somewhere to go, to go home. Perhaps most alarmingly, we’ve had to stipulate that the tribally run health center will not refer patients to specialists unless the situation is life-threatening and/or dire. This means that the many people who seek referrals for care that the health center is not equipped to provide but for which the tribe will pay must wait until their health issues become so critical as to be deemed an emergency before they can seek outside care.
Other tribes face much more potentially calamitous consequences if the shutdown continues for much longer. Over in Montana, the Crow Tribe has had to furlough 300 employees and worries about the future of various tribal programs such as home healthcare, educational programs, transportation, and nutritional programs. The Yurok Tribe in California has had to make similar decisions to furlough employees and cut down on college scholarship funding. The Oglala Sioux have come out to officially criticize the government shutdown. Their Pine Ridge reservation is one of the poorest in the country with poverty levels reaching 40%, and so they stand to be heavily affected as the shutdown continues. Here in Arizona, some tribes are already feeling the impact of the shutdown and especially with regards to childhood education programs.
Any time that something with such a widespread economic impact happens in the United States the most vulnerable populations have suffered disproportionately. Colorlines recently discussed Why Race Matters in the Government Shutdown, noting that people of color are hardest hit by such economic consequences because, as a result of a long history of racial oppression, people of color are disproportionately likely to be poor. This is true of indigenous peoples, where unemployment levels are regularly at more than double the rate of the general population and many do not have access or easy access to services funded or partially funded by their tribes anywhere else because of widespread poverty.
In my wildest dreams, we wouldn’t need the federal government for a single thing, nor would we need to rely on capitalist methods of asserting self-determination, e.g., running casinos in order to stabilize our finances and that sort of thing. But, at the same time, real people need real services right now that many tribes, on their own, aren’t able to provide or easily provide at the moment. Moreover, the U.S. government has a responsibility to us to help make sure those things are provided. I do hope this will further motivate indigenous peoples to continue exploring non-state and even anti-state alternatives to providing these much needed services.