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Indian tribes struggle, and fume, as U.S. shutdown wears on

The U.S Capitol Building is pictured at sunset in Washington, October 11, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed
The U.S Capitol Building is pictured at sunset in Washington, October 11, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

By Jonathan Kaminsky

(Reuters) - As the federal government shutdown loomed last week, the deputy head of the largest Indian tribe in California sat in her office, doing some gut-wrenching math.

To absorb expected cuts, she'd have to suspend childcare for over 50 families, leave about 100 college scholarships unpaid, suspend tutoring for 1,900 students and furlough 60 of her tribe's 310 employees in a community already plagued by 80 percent unemployment.

"I had a migraine the whole last week when I was trying to assess this," said Susan Masten, vice chairwoman of the Yurok Tribe in remote northern California. "It's really disturbing when it's all just because of politics. They're taking families' livelihoods away."

With those cuts now in place, she says two more weeks of the shutdown would require her to furlough another 74 workers, which would threaten food distribution to isolated areas of her reservation where people will otherwise go hungry.

As a federal government closure approaches its third week, Native American tribes around the country that rely on government aid and bound by its bureaucracy have been hard hit, with funding for programs like foster care, natural resource administration and food aid suspended.

Other services deemed essential, such as law enforcement, medical care and some social services, remain operational.

While some tribes have used income from casinos to defray the cuts and others have leveraged assets not in federal trust to borrow needed cash, those less fortunate have been left to take the suspension in government services on the chin.

Six tribes closed food distribution programs in the first week of the shutdown, said Jaime Prouty, treasurer of the National Association of Food Distribution Programs on Indian Reservations, affecting about 2,550 tribal members.

In Montana, the Crow Tribe has furloughed 380 employees, including its 10 police officers, after the shutdown prevented it from accessing royalties from a coal mine it owns. The federal government manages the mine's profits, a circumstance shared by other tribes that own natural resources like timber and grazing lands held in federal trust.

"It's our money but we can't get to it," said Darrin Old Coyote, chairman of the Crow Tribe. "We're treated as the stepchild of the U.S. government."

SKELETON STAFF

President Barack Obama and congressional Republican leaders inched toward a resolution to their fiscal impasse on Friday, but struggled to nail down the length and terms of a short-term deal to increase the U.S. debt limit and reopen the federal government.

The shutdown was triggered by Republican demands to defund or delay Obama's healthcare reforms as a condition of passing a spending bill for the new fiscal year that began October 1.

Meanwhile, the head of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which provides many of the federal government's services to the country's 566 recognized Indian tribes, said his skeleton staff was busy addressing a series of minor crises, some stemming from the absence of support workers for government services that otherwise remain operational.

In one case, BIA head Kevin Washburn said, a group of Navajo dialysis patients in New Mexico was stuck without a ride to the hospital on Thursday because their bus service had been suspended. Washburn directed an agency field staffer, himself working without pay, to ferry the patients by truck.

"I'm not sure we had the authority to do that, but I'd rather get in trouble for doing something we don't technically have approval for than someone dying," Washburn said.

Advocates and officials said the shutdown has hit many tribes hard in part because it follows on the heels of sequestration, the across-the-board federal spending cuts implemented last spring that left tribes with a roughly 5 percent reduction in federal aid.

"They don't have that cushion that they've had in previous years," Washburn said.

But some tribes have found ways to stave off cuts. Among them is the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe in Washington state, which borrowed $750,000 from area banks to keep its staff paid and its services, mostly federal college scholarships, up and running for about a month.

"We're among the few tribes that have assets that we can leverage," tribe Chairman Ron Allen said. "But it's going to cost us."

The anger among felt by many Native Americans over the suspension of services during the shutdown stems in large measure from the fact that their forebears signed treaties with the federal government in which they ceded territory partly in exchange for those provisions.

"We did agree to give up lands to homesteaders, to poor white settlers," Old Coyote said. "They're not owning up to their trust responsibility to provide the things they said they would."

(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Wash., and Karen Brooks in Austin; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Philip Barbara)

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