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Government shutdown taking a toll on Native Americans across the US

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The government shutdown, which is currently in its second week, is hurting American Indian and Alaska Native tribes across the US.

The federal government funds or provides many services to Indian Country — including law enforcement, health care programs —and road maintenance, as a result of treaties signed generations ago in which the US government guaranteed funds to tribes across the country, according to the New York Times. The shutdown has meant tribal officials have had to either pause programs or dip into their own funds in order to cover basic services like health care and education.

“The federal government owes us this: We prepaid with millions of acres of land,” Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe, told The Times. “We don’t have the right to take back that land, so we expect the federal government to fulfill its treaty and trust responsibility.”

For a tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan, the shutdown has meant daily losses of $100,000 in federal funding. The money, according to The Times, funds health clinics, food pantries, and other services. For now, the tribe is using its own funds but stands the chance to deplete its stopgap account if the shutdown continues longer.

Parts of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah where the Navajo Nation lives are currently covered in a blanket of snow, trapping people in their homes, leaving them unable to travel 20 or 50 miles for water, groceries, and medicine. It is the federal government’s job to clear the roads, according to The Times. Many members of the Navajo Nation are also paid by the federal government, meaning their paychecks remain frozen as the shutdown continues.

Other tribes are planning on cutting down services and making changes to their budgets in order to make it through the shutdown. According to The Times, officials in the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin said they have a contingency plan but could probably make it through another month without making any cuts. In Idaho, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes said they could operate at “full strength” through Saturday, but if the shutdown continues it will have to re-evaluate then.

Read more: Human feces and overflowing garbage are overwhelming national parks amid the US government shutdown

Kevin Washburn, former assistant secretary for Indian Affairs under President Barack Obama, told The Times, “Indian Country stops moving forward and starts moving backward during a shutdown.”

The Interior Department’s Indian Affairs bureau provides basic services to nearly 1.9 million American Indians and Alaska Natives, including road maintenance and law enforcement. According to The Times, the bureau was set to furlough 2,662 of 4,490 employees during the shutdown, meaning some of these services and salaries have been put on pause.

When The Times reached out the the Interior Department on New Year’s Eve, a spokesman said so many people were furloughed or out for the holiday that he could provide no information about how the shutdown was affecting Indian Country.

This is not the first time a government shutdown has severely affected tribes. The 2013 shutdown of the Obama presidency led a California tribe to close its child care program, according to The Times. Other tribes delayed nonemergency medical procedures or cut employees, including medical staff.

Last month, Republican Representative Markwayne Mullin, of Oklahoma and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, introduced a bill that would have maintained funding for the Indian Health Service during a shutdown, the Times reported. The proposal did not make it to a vote.

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