Deanna Lubarsky at the Indian Health Service in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It is one of many federally funded entities serving Native Americans that has been affected by the shutdown. Jenni Monet/CityLab

U.S. treaties guarantee services to Native Americans, many administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies affected by the shutdown.

ALBUQUERQUE—When Deanna Lubarsky’s husband passed away 11 years ago, she took a couple of years to readjust to her new life before re-entering the workforce, landing a job at the Bureau of Indian Education office in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Now, with the government shutdown, she’s been furloughed since December 21.  

A tribal citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, Lubarksy said she could sense trouble was looming. In early December, based on rumors of potential sequestration, she nixed plans to spend a week with her daughter in New York City. Lubarsky, 64, is now concerned about her healthcare.

Without a paycheck, it means her private health insurance is at risk of lapsing come Feb. 1. Three weeks into the government shutdown she loaded up the backseat of her station wagon with the three dogs, Lola, Coco, and Cato—her immediate family with her daughter so far away—and drove to the Indian hospital to refill prescriptions that control her diabetes and high blood pressure. A canceled appointment in late December had her concerned; she worries what may happen if the stalemate persists.

Entering its fourth week—the longest government shutdown in history—the impacts of the closure are being uniquely and deeply felt in Indian Country, particularly with constraints on the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs as well as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Indian Health Service. The closure has also affected the thousands of federal employees working within these agencies, many of whom are tribal citizens now furloughed. And tribal nations engaged in federal contracting have reported an estimated financial loss of $200,000 to $250,000 per day during the shutdown, according to some tribal leaders.

On Thursday, a coalition of Indigenous advocacy groups took a treaty stand, lambasting President Donald Trump and Congress in a joint letter urging them to end the ongoing shutdown. The closure they say, has disproportionately affected Native Americans. Central to their chiding was the reminder of the federal government’s treaty and trust obligations guaranteed to tribal nations.

“America’s longstanding, legally mandated obligations to tribal nations should be honored no matter the political quarrels of the moment,” read the letter signed by top officials with the National Congress of American Indians, the National American Indian Housing Association, the National Indian Health Board, and other groups.

But as the closure lingers, certain tribal leaders are calling for an exemption to the furloughs and budget cuts currently being felt.  

On the Navajo Nation, outgoing president Russell Begaye referenced a recent winter storm as one critical example to keep the funds flowing to such tribal nations. The vast reservation with an estimated 174,000 tribal citizens living on these lands, spans three different states, is roughly the size of West Virginia, and deeply rural. When snow socked in residents in early January, many were trapped in their homes for days after Bureau of Indian Affairs workers, furloughed during the call for snow removal, were slow to respond. Roads were ultimately cleared by unpaid employees.

The outgoing president of the Navajo Nation, Russell Begaye, is among tribal leaders calling for an exemption to the government shutdown. (Jenni Monet/CityLab)

“It’s basic human survival we’re talking about and it’s all covered by the treaties,” said Begaye.

Since its founding, the United States and Native Americans have sustained a special trust relationship promoting tribal self-determination and also the general wellbeing of tribes and its citizenry in exchange for the expansive reduction of Indigenous-held lands. Forced removal and resettlement resulted in the seizure of the original territories of approximately one-fifth of tribes. The United States signed 375 treaties, passed laws, and instituted policies that today continue to shape and define the unique government-to-government relationship between the U.S. and tribal nations.

But even in more solvent times, the federal government has not always provided adequate assistance to support the economic and social well-being of the estimated 2.6 million tribal citizens living on and off Indian reservations, today. Due at least in part to the failure of the federal government adequately addressing their responsibilities to Native Americans over the last two centuries, Indigenous Peoples in the United States continue to rank near the bottom of all Americans in health, education, and employment outcomes.

In December, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called attention to the government’s federal funding shortfall in a report titled “Broken Promises,” calling on Congress to honor the trust obligations and pass a spending package to fully address unmet needs in Indian Country.

“The United States expects all nations to live up to their treaty obligations; it should live up to its own,” wrote the chairwoman of the Commission on Civil Rights, Catherine E. Lhamon, in a letter to Donald Trump.

Other tribes are taking more drastic measures in response to lost wages of Indigenous workers. The Pawnee Nation launched a GoFundMe campaign to buy groceries for families of federal workers affected by the government shutdown. Many employees are still working, according to the tribe, but without pay.

“We can only imagine the stress this shutdown has been on the federal employees and their families who in some cases live paycheck to paycheck and as of today now are expected to work for no pay till the government reopens,” said Pawnee Nation President W. Bruce Pratt in a statement on the fundraising site.

The Navajo Nation spans three different states. When residents were trapped in their homes by snow in January, roads were ultimately cleared by unpaid employees as Bureau of Indian Affairs workers have been furloughed. (Jenni Monet/CityLab)

These sentiments were also shared by another Native American leader, Congresswoman Deb Haaland of New Mexico. Last week, Haaland made remarks on the House floor calling for an end to the shutdown.

“As someone who relied on government assistance programs when I was raising my daughter as a single mom, I've been there and I know,” said Rep. Haaland. “I know that it is devastating for these people to worry about how they are going to pay for their next meal and take care of their families.”

Haaland also acknowledged the uneven effect the government closure has had on tribal nations. In an email response, the congresswoman, who is also a tribal citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, said she would look at proposals to alleviate the loss of basic services for tribes should the shutdown continue.  

Back in Haaland’s home state of New Mexico, Lubarsky was wondering whether her Individual Indian Money Account or IIM will be disrupted by government furloughs. The check stems from oil and gas royalties she receives monthly, in part from the MHA Nation, but distributed through the Department of the Interior’s Office of Indian Services. Nearing four weeks without income, the dividend for Lubarsky comes at a critical time.

“I'm going to be taking funds out of my 401k just to pay bills this month and that's scary,” said Lubarsky.  

Across Indian Country, the irony is not lost on tribal leaders who see Americans like Lubarsky as those most affected by generational displacement and immigration over the last 500 years of colonization. Yet they are among those most negatively affected by harmful federal government agendas.  

“The President of the United States should quit trying to build a wall that would have been better served at Plymouth Rock in 1492,” said Chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Harold Frazier, in a written statement.  

“The United States’ treaty obligations to Native nations is the first thing to be thrown out the door during this shutdown,” he said, “Have we not suffered enough?”

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