Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas) and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), sitting side-by-side on the left, appear at their first hearing of the 116th Congress on January 15, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Solutions elusive for Indian Country as impasse in Washington drags on

By Acee Agoyo

• RECAP: Indian Country shares #ShutdownStories

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- With efforts to resolve the record-breaking government shutdown at a standstill, tribal leaders and advocates are scrambling for ways out of the crisis.

But solutions are far and few between. While Democrats in the House continue to vote on bills to reopen the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service, Republicans in the Senate remain unwilling to take them up.

President Donald Trump, whose demand for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico spurred the shutdown, hasn't budged either. Between tweets about giving fast food to collegiate athletes and denigrating a political rival's kitchen table talk with a snide remark about Wounded Knee, the leader of the free world hasn't acknowledged the impact of the shutdown on the first Americans, or most Americans, for that matter.

The impasse leaves tribes and their citizens in a sad but familiar situation. Their programs and services, promised through the trust and treaty responsibility of the United States, have long been underfunded. Now, as a result of the shutdown, they aren't being funded at all.

House Natural Resources Committee Democrats on YouTube: Democratic Hearing on Shutdown Impacts on Indian Country and the Environment

"Our tribal governments have to choose between providing food or medicine for our most vulnerable people," Mary Greene Trottier, the president of the National Association of Food Distribution Programs on Indian Reservations, said during a Democratic hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, the 25th day of the shutdown.

"During this shutdown we have been told to make do with what little we have, but in Indian Country," Greene Trottier added, "we have already been making do with very little for a long time."

"If the shutdown continues, we may be forced to make do with nothing," the citizen of the Spirit Lake Nation said.

The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), which is overseen by the Department of Agriculture, is among the many casualties of the Washington-induced crisis. It helps more than 90,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives put food on the table but funding for administrative functions runs out at the end of the month.

The rapidly-approaching deadline has tribal officials living in fear and uncertainty, Greene Trottier told lawmakers. Some food shipments have already been delayed and the prolonged shutdown will only make matters worse, she said.

"After January 31, our food will not make it out of the warehouses," Greene Trottier said.

House Natural Resources Committee Democrats on YouTube: Representative Haaland's Question for Witnesses at Shutdown Hearing

For those tribal citizens living away from reservations -- where the overwhelming majority reside -- the picture isn't any prettier. Native American Lifelines, which delivers critical services to Native Americans in urban areas in two states, has already stopped offering some programs because the IHS is no longer providing funds, executive director Kerry Hawk Lessard said.

But those funds were rather meager to begin with. Of the approximately $922,000 provided by IHS, only $691 is set aside for mental health services at the clinics in Maryland and Massachusetts, Lessard said.

"You heard me correctly: $691 for Baltimore and Boston," said Lessard, who is Shawnee. "That is not enough to take care of any one of our patients."

For urban Indian health programs across the nation -- there are 41, according to the IHS -- dealing with inadequate resources is all too common. Overall, their share of the federal pie leaves them to spend just $700 per patient, far below the U.S. average of $10,000 per patient, Lessard said.

"As a Native veteran patient once said, it is still legal for the federal government to kill Indians, even in 2019," Lessard told lawmakers.

Amid the gloom and doom, both Lessard and Aaron Payment, the chairperson of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, offered a way to avoid these catastrophes. By providing the IHS with forward funding in a manner similar to Veterans Affairs hospitals, shutdowns will have less of an impact, at least in the future, both said.

In his very first bill of the 116th Congress, Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, called for the IHS to be provided with advanced appropriations, which he also sought as the last session came to a close. But while H.R.195 enjoys bipartisan support, such measures haven't gained much traction in the past, even through tribes have long endorsed the idea.

“This shutdown violates the trust responsibility to tribal nations and adds to the trail of broken treaties," said Payment, who also serves as vice president of the National Congress of American Indians, the largest inter-tribal advocacy organization in the U.S. "I'm here to remind the Trump administration that your mortgage payment is due."

Democrats who organized the hearing were sympathetic to the tribal woes. But as they blamed the shutdown on President Trump and their Republican colleagues for the shutdown, they didn't appear to offer any immediate help, beyond passing the appropriations bills that are being held up in the Senate.

“Once again we have failed to meet our trust and treaty responsibilities to tribal nations," said Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that handles most of Indian Country's funding.

The hearing also marked the debut of both Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) and Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas), who are the first Native women to serve in Congress. Like the Indian Country witnesses, they sought to emphasize the personal impacts of the shutdown.

"What happens to someone, when they do choose between medicine and food?” said Haaland, who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna and was the first lawmaker to ask a question at the proceeding. "They choose food, because that's all they have."

Davids, who is a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation, doesn't have any tribes in her district, which includes Kansas City and the surrounding areas. But she noted that dozens of employees of the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians in Kansas have been furloughed since the start of the shutdown, which impacts their families and others in their communities.

"All of us all connected," said Davids, who was the second lawmaker to ask questions at the hearing. "This affects all of us."

As the Democrats were hearing Indian Country's #ShutdownStories, Trump and some Republican members of Congress were discussing impasse strategies at the White House. Trump invited some Democrats in hopes of getting them to abandon their party's efforts but none of them attended.

"Democrats will soon be known as the Party of Crime. Ridiculous that they don’t want Border Security!" Trump asserted in a post on Twitter in the morning, before his meeting.

Republican leaders, meanwhile, are trying to keep their rank and file in line. In the House, upwards of a dozen GOP lawmakers have been voting to pass the Democratic appropriations bills. Over in the Senate, some key members -- including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that handles Indian Country funding -- are seeking to separate the funding fight from the controversy over the border wall.

"If we are still in a partial shutdown next week, we should cancel the upcoming recess and stay here to reopen the government and secure our borders," Murkowski wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.

Democrats remain adamantly opposed to the wall, which Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona) called a "monument to bigotry" on Tuesday. He's the new leader of the House Committee on Natural Resources, whose Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs deals with Indian Country issues.

And Grijalva will be at it again on Wednesday morning, when his committee hosts a forum on border issues that Haaland is expected to attend. Verlon M. Jose, the vice chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation, who famously said a wall will be built through his tribe's homelands in Arizona "over my dead body," has been invited to provide testimony.

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