Government shutdown's hit magnified for tribes

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BILLINGS, Mont. — 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 say they'll try to fill the gap themselves, risking deficits to cushion communities with chronic high unemployment and poverty against effects of the budget battle in Washington, D.C.

But basic services heavily subsidized by federal payments are taking a direct hit. Crow Chairman Darrin Old Coyote says the southeastern Montana reservation is suspending bus service to remote communities and furloughing employees from a major irrigation project.

Some activities considered essential will continue, including law enforcement, firefighting, schools and some social services, Bureau of Indian Affairs spokeswoman Nedra Darling said. But other programs are sure to take a hit, such as financial assistance for the needy, payments for foster care and oversight of environmental, wildlife and cultural programs.

The full scope of the shutdown's effects on tribes remains uncertain; tribal leaders say the severity will depend on how long it lasts. The BIA provides services to more than 1.7 million American Indians and Alaska Natives from more than 500 recognized tribes.

"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.

King says the reservation'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.

Other tribes, such as the Crow Indians in southeastern Montana, have chosen to furlough workers now rather than risk not being repaid by the federal government down the road. Crow Chairman Darrin Old Coyote said dozens of workers likely would be furloughed, although an exact figure wasn't immediately available.

"We're taking a proactive approach," Old Coyote said. "There's no guarantee (that tribes will be repaid), and we don't want to be out millions of dollars."

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 at 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."

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.

The group 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.