BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — American Indian tribes have more than access to national parks on the line with the government shutdown, as federal funding has been cut off for crucial services including foster care payments, nutrition programs and financial assistance for the needy.
Some tribes intend to fill the gap themselves, risking deficits of their own to cushion communities with chronic high unemployment and poverty against the effects of the budget battle in Washington, D.C.
But for others, basic services heavily subsidized by federal payments stand to take a direct hit.
"Do we just throw kids onto the street, or do we help them? Most likely we're going to help those families and do whatever we can until this is unresolved," said Tracy "Ching" King, president of northern Montana's Fort Belknap Reservation.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs says essential activities such as law enforcement, firefighting and some social services will continue. Programs that did not make the list include residential care for children and adults, cash assistance for the poor and payments to vendors who provide foster care.
How long those programs will continue on reservations depends on the duration of the shutdown and how much money individual tribes can spare. The BIA provides services to more than 1.7 million American Indians and Alaska Natives from more than 500 recognized tribes.
Crow Chairman Darrin Old Coyote says the southeastern Montana tribe is suspending bus service to remote communities and on Wednesday could furlough dozens of employees, including workers at a long-anticipated irrigation project intended to spur economic development on the remote reservation.
"We're taking a proactive approach," Old Coyote said of sending employees home. "There's no guarantee (that tribes will be repaid), and we don't want to be out millions of dollars."
The National Congress of American Indians and tribal leaders said the "double whammy" of the shutdown and the earlier automatic spending cuts known as sequestration illustrates their vulnerability in the federal budget process.
"Your destiny is sort of in someone else's hands," Chippewa Cree tribal spokesman Larry Denny said.
The NCAI said other areas where cuts could be felt most acutely include nutrition programs that distribute food to an average of 76,500 people a month from an estimated 276 tribes.
During the last government shutdown in the mid-1990s, general assistance payments from the BIA were delayed for nearly 53,000 American Indian recipients, according to the National Congress of American Indians.
Such payments total about $42 million annually, and tribal leaders say they help offset chronic unemployment levels. On the Fort Belknap Reservation, for example, the unemployment rate hovers around 70 percent of tribal members, King said.
"To get them out of that rut, you have to invest in them somehow. You want to encourage them to work and see what their talents are," King said. "But if this (shutdown) continues, we'll have to look at all of our programs individually and say can we afford this, to see what we could do to provide services to our most needy."
He says Fort Belknap's Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes will pay for affected programs themselves until federal payments resume. But he warns that could hurt tribal finances already strained from prior federal cuts. Within just a few weeks, carrying the cost of federal programs will cost the tribe roughly $1 million, King said.
While many tribes are still sorting out the effects of shutdown, some in South Dakota are already seeing an impact.
Jean Archambeau, vice chairwoman of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, said general assistance has been cut, and money for heating assistance also isn't coming this fall.
"I don't know what we're going to do," she said. "They're already predicting snow out west and possibly in this area of the state."
Law enforcement, the school and the hospital on the reservation are all running as normal, Archambeau said.
The tribe has enough money to keep operating for about a month, so the concern is mainly with individual families, although tribal leaders have started discussing the possibility of layoffs if the shutdown continues, she said.
The NCAI said that even if the shutdown is resolved soon, budget cuts already planned for 2013 will mean less money for the Indian Health Service, education programs, law enforcement, housing and road maintenance work.
"The (federal government's) trust responsibility to tribal nations is not a line item, and tribal programs must be exempt from budget cuts in any budget deal," the group said in a statement.
Associated Press writers Matt Volz in Helena and Carson Walker in Sioux Falls, S.D., contributed to this report.
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