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‘Catastrophic’: Minnesota’s tribal communities face deep service cuts, tough choices as government shutdown drags on

Minnesota’s tribes signed treaties ceding their land to Washington in return for financial support. Those obligations aren’t being honored during the shutdown.

Many residents of the Red Lake Nation rely on federally funded programs to access health care.
MinnPost file photo by Steve Date

Suspended food safety tests, vanishing airport security workers, an explosion of trash and human waste in national parks: The ongoing federal government shutdown, poised to become the longest such closure in U.S. history, is affecting Americans in a variety of ways.

But there may not be a group of people who are experiencing the full range of the shutdown’s effects — from the merely inconvenient to the genuinely life-threatening — as deeply as the country’s American Indian and Alaskan Native tribes.

Tribes rely on the federal government to fund and administer programs that are vital to the survival and well-being of their communities — an obligation rooted in treaties between tribal nations, whose lands were largely ceded to Washington, and the U.S. government, which in return pledged them financial support.

Though many of the government’s core obligations, like defense, remain funded during this shutdown, its so-called “treaty obligation” to tribes is not. The Department of the Interior, which runs the Bureaus of Indian Affairs and Indian Education, is shut down, with over half of its 4,000-person workforce currently furloughed.

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For many tribal nations in Minnesota and around the country, the drying-up of federal funds and loss of federal workers jeopardizes everything from health care services and child care to law enforcement and road maintenance. In tribal communities, which suffer from poverty and diseases at higher rates than the general population, these federally funded services are often life-sustaining ones.

With President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats at an impasse over the president’s demand for $5.7 billion to fund a U.S.-Mexico border wall, an end to the shutdown is nowhere in sight. For some tribes in Minnesota, a protracted shutdown poses an unprecedented threat to their communities. Oran Beaulieu, who administers health programs for the Red Lake Nation in northern Minnesota, had one word to describe that scenario: “catastrophic.”

Threatened services, unpaid workers

Minnesota is home to 11 tribal nations with different governing structures and levels of resources. That means each tribal government is handling the shutdown differently: some have been pushed to the brink, others are weathering the storm without sustaining much pain, and still others were able to plan ahead and secure funds to cover a funding shortfall of a few weeks — but not a month or longer.

President Donald Trump
REUTERS/Leah Millis
President Donald Trump
How well a tribe handles a shutdown depends partially on its relationship to the federal government and the services it provides: some tribes are called “self-governing,” which means tribal authorities administer programs with grant money from the Interior Department, while other tribes are in the “direct service” category, which means that agencies like the Indian Health Service, or IHS, administer those tribal programs themselves. Some tribes are a mix of those categories, depending on the kind of service.

Eight Minnesota tribes are largely self-governing. Two of them, the Red Lake Nation and the Bois Forte Band, both Ojibwe (or Chippewa) people, are facing some of the most dire impacts of the shutdown in Minnesota’s Indian Country.

The Red Lake Nation, which occupies over 1,250 square miles of land in northwestern Minnesota, is the most impoverished tribal nation in the state, with roughly 40 percent of tribe members living in poverty and a quarter unemployed. Many residents rely on federally funded programs to access health care.

Beaulieu, the health services director for the Red Lake tribal government, says the shutdown has forced administrators to scramble. “We have a contract with the federal government that says, we’ll provide health services to the Red Lake people,” he told MinnPost. “But it’s hard to provide health services to the Red Lake people when you receive no funding.”

Thanks to money from the tribe’s general fund and elsewhere, Beaulieu says, “we’re able to provide what we’re providing — daily care, 24 hours a day, with the money we have on hand.”

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However, employees at the federally-run IHS hospital in Red Lake, which services a large tribal population, are not getting paid during the shutdown. “It’s hurting them financially,” says Beaulieu. “It’s hard for them to continue providing services, yet they are.”

On the Bois Forte reservation, which sits on 200 square miles of northern Minnesota land between Hibbing and International Falls, tribal leaders have spoken to national outlets like the New York Times detailing the challenges created by the shutdown. Bois Forte chair Cathy Chavers said that the tribal government will be forced to scale back its services to a basic level as the shutdown drags on. (Chavers did not respond to a request for comment from MinnPost.)

Tribal law enforcement officials, who are often paid by the federal government, are working at Bois Forte without pay. “These officers are putting their lives on the line,” Chavers told the Times, “and they don’t know if they’re going to get a paycheck or not.”

Tribes that are smaller and wealthier, like the Prairie Island Indian Community in southeastern Minnesota, are less dependent on the federal government for vital services and are not as impacted by the shutdown. A spokesperson for the tribe said that the tribe’s government anticipated the shortfall and prepared for it.

Still, Prairie Island’s usual contacts at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Environmental Protection Agency are furloughed, presenting an obstacle to cooperation on projects.

‘Uncharted territory’

For tribes that are subsisting on funds drawn from elsewhere, leaders say that without a shutdown resolution, it’s only a matter of time before they have to resort to extraordinary measures in order to keep providing services.

Red Lake’s Beaulieu says the tribe would be forced to obtain a bank loan if the shutdown drags on much longer. “It would be catastrophic to health care,” he says. “We’re hoping everything is settled in the next few days. That money is running out. We’ve got big bills coming in.”

Leaders of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, who live on 1,000 square miles of land in north-central Minnesota, are also contemplating options if the shutdown continues into next month. Lenny Fineday, the tribe’s government relations specialist, said that direct federal funding accounts for a quarter of the budget for the tribe, which with 10,000 members is the largest in Minnesota.

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Tribal authorities believed a shutdown was likely a few weeks before it happened, so they procured $2 million from the tribe’s general fund in anticipation of a shortfall. “We’ve been in the boat before,” Fineday told MinnPost. “That’s why we paid attention. We had no idea how long it was going to last, so we got as much as we could.” But a shutdown as long as this one might be, Fineday says, is “uncharted territory.”

“Whatever alternative funding sources we have to come up with, whether that’s general fund dollars, those are options we’ll be looking at in the next couple of weeks if it looks like the shutdown will extend into February,” he says, adding that taking out a line of credit is a possible option. “The number one goal is to see that our tribal members don’t bear the brunt of this.”

Minnesota’s representatives in Congress cannot do much to provide relief to tribes until the government reopens and the Department of the Interior is funded. There’s a bipartisan effort behind legislation in the U.S. House that would reinstate pay for Indian Health Service doctors, nurses, and staffers working in hospitals without pay. On Friday, the House is expected to approve legislation to open the Department of the Interior.

MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Rep. Betty McCollum
There’s been little momentum, however, in the Republican-controlled Senate for targeted appropriations to reopen parts of the federal government.

Fourth District DFL Rep. Betty McCollum, a longtime advocate for tribes, is now the chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds programs for Indian Country. She is shepherding the bill to reopen the Department of the Interior this week.

“Funding for tribes to address domestic violence, substance abuse and suicide are halted during a shutdown,” McCollum said in a statement to MinnPost. “Our government has an obligation to uphold our trust and treaty responsibilities to tribal nations, and this shutdown is once again breaking those promises. We must reopen the government — immediately.”

DFL Sen. Tina Smith, who sits on the Senate’s Indian Affairs panel, said it’s unacceptable the federal government isn’t living up to its side of its treaty obligations to tribes. “The impacts all fall on tribal communities, and that’s just wrong,” she told MinnPost.

“People are pissed off. They want us to take up those bills that are sitting on the desk in the Senate to reopen the government… We need to get everything back up and running.”

Smith and others pointed out that the shutdown may have already exacerbated a serious, long-term concern in Indian Country: difficulty recruiting medical professionals to work at IHS hospitals and clinics. A 2018 federal report found that a quarter of federal health care provider jobs in Indian Country are vacant. “This shutdown only makes it harder for people to say, this is a place where I want to work,” Smith says.

Tribal leaders and their advocates are using the dire impacts of this shutdown to make a broader case that tribes should never be put in such a position again. Some have discussed putting federal funding for vital Indian Country programs in the same category as Veterans’ Administration programs, which are protected during a shutdown no matter what.

Russell Begaye
Russell Begaye
Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation that spans several southwestern states, told the publication Indian Country Today that tribes should be exempted from future shutdowns. “People need to realize that these are legal obligations,” he said, “and the feds are breaking those obligations, which is illegal.”

For now, Minnesota tribes are taking it one step at a time as the shutdown stretches into its 20th day, on the brink of becoming the longest closure in U.S. history. Red Lake’s Beaulieu couldn’t help but question why his tribe is sacrificing so much in this bitterly political Washington impasse.

“We’re able to continue on right now with the tribe’s help,” he said. “But Trump has decided to play Russian roulette with our health care to fund his wall.”