Exploring the Impact of the Government Shutdown on Native Communities

Tuesday, January 15 marks day 25 of the federal government shutdown, now the longest in U.S. history, and it’s no surprise that Native Americans both on reservations, such as the Pine Ridge Indian and Cheyenne River Sioux Reservations in South Dakota, and off reservations are bearing the brunt.

“Native American tribes have missed out on millions of dollars in federal funding for basic services,” The New York Times reported Sunday.

And the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, South Dakota reported last week that “South Dakota tribes fear loss of jobs, food assistance programs as shutdown lingers.”

While Running Strong for American Indian Youth®, of course, cannot replace the responsibilities of the federal government, with the generous assistance of our supporters we are able to provide much-needed assistance to thousands of Native children and families.

Right now, we have already taken steps to ship urgent emergency food supplies to our field office, Tipi Waste Un Zanipi (Wellness Through a Good Home) on Pine Ridge, and to our longtime partner on Cheyenne River, the Eagle Butte Food Pantry.

Sen. Red Dawn Foster, who represents Pine Ridge in the South Dakota State Legislature, told the Argus Leader that the Oglala Sioux Tribe has been impacted “pretty heavily” by the shutdown due to the fact that a large portion of its budget is federally funded.

“A lot of our Indian Health Service employees live paycheck to paycheck and they’re dependent on this,” she said. “They’re already overworked and understaffed, and to have this economic worry on top of that, creates a more fragile environment that therefore impacts our citizens.”

If the shutdown continues, the concern is that it will hurt the Oglala Sioux’s economy and have real-life consequences for people, she said.

Running Strong Field Staffer on Pine Ridge Ken Lone Elk is seeing those “real-life consequences” firsthand.

As we have for 20 years, Running Strong is in the midst of our Heat Match program providing utility assistance to hundreds of Pine Ridge families who need help raising $200, the minimum required to have a propane truck come to their home and fill up their tank.

Since the program started on January 7, Ken expects to have received 700 applications from families to match their $100 with another $100 from Running Strong by the end of the week.

While it is always busy at this time of year for Ken and field coordinator Dave Lone Elk, who oversees the Heat Match program, Ken reported that he is seeing many families coming to them for assistance for the first time.

“We received many people that never used our services before,” he told us.

And even Ken’s own family is not immune from the devastating impact caused by the shutdown.

“My two granddaughters were ordered to work without pay,” he said. “They were classified as essential staff” at the Pine Ridge Hospital where they work in the emergency ward.

On Cheyenne Ridge, things are no better.

Joye Braun of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe told the website Truthout that nurses at the IHS facility in Eagle Butte are not only going unpaid, but they even have to walk to work because they cannot afford gas.

“Many programs that are trust responsibilities of the government — services we’ve paid for with land and resources and forcible removal — are dependent on federal dollars,” Braun said. “Health care, police officers and other federal employees are working without pay. What’s going to happen when services are stopped and tribes who already face huge economic disparages can’t cover costs for basic services? People already can’t afford gas, or food.”

To do what we can in this time of great need on the already hard-hit families on Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River 1,000 boxes of nonperishable food items are on the way to Pine Ridge, with an additional 700 slated to arrive in Eagle Butte by the first week of February.

And that’s on top of 1,700 boxes of frozen food we had already scheduled for January for both reservations.

Food and warmth – there’s nothing more important than that to help Lakota families survive the long winters where it’s not uncommon for temperatures to drop below zero.

Ken knows that the next several weeks will be hard on the families on both reservations, particularly in light of the fact that of course, they have no way of knowing how devastating the impact of the government shutdown will ultimately be, but he is not discouraged and remains full of faith in his people.

“What I do know is that when this happens, the Tribal employees keep on working without pay. This I know because it has happened two or three times in the past.

“We are committed to our families…a person’s life is more valuable than money.”

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