Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


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

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

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Mac Riddel on 01/11/2019 - 11:16 am.

    Sucks to be them, but why do they subsist on government subsidies in the first place? Sure, due to a treaty from ~150 years ago. I get it. But isn’t it time to help them help themselves? Shouldn’t other obscenely rich tribes (ie Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community) offer some of their casino millions to tribes in need?

    Some people need support due to unforeseen circumstances and that support should be given to get them back on their feet. But a never-ending permanent obligation to help those that don’t pay taxes on the property that they live on? Let’s treat these people as people, not second class aliens. Help them succeed. Teach them to fish. Ween them off of government handouts so they don’t have to ever worry about governments shutdowns again.

    • Submitted by Marc Post on 01/11/2019 - 11:43 am.

      These are NOT government handouts. These are payments owed to them for land in treaty agreements. We owe them rent.

      • Submitted by Terence Fruth on 01/13/2019 - 10:00 am.

        These benefits are not treaty payments. One commenter suggested they should be illegal as they are race based. Under the Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, these race based benefits are exempted in the case of Indians, and so they are an exception to the rule. The assumption was that Indians, unlike any other race, were incapable of looking out for themselves. Yes, this assumption was as racist as the assumption about African Americans. So this exception, must be managed with great care so as to minimize resentment. So means testing should determine who gets what. That means our legislators must act. However, the Casino Tribes use their money to influence deciders and the rich are getting richer—— like the rest of our society. We are not spending too much money on our Natives. We are wasting too much. I am getting my social security so why is Red Lake not getting theirs, they should have a rainy day fund but instead they are hand to mouth.

    • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 01/11/2019 - 11:48 am.

      Are “obscenely rich tribes” not helping other tribes? I am genuinely anxious for you to reveal what you know about this.

      Also, what sort of fish-teaching would you suggest that wouldn’t seem to emulate the already disastrous polices of Allotment, Boarding Schools, Relocation, Termination, etc., etc.?

      • Submitted by Terence Fruth on 01/13/2019 - 03:57 pm.

        Brian, yes the casino tribes do sprinkle a little fairy dust around. I know the facts when it comes to Prairie Island. These facts are easy to gather for when the fairy dust is sprinkled by Prairie Island, Webber Shandwick, a world wide pr agency, makes sure it is widely publicized. Our Township got a fire truck PIIC for agreeing to provide fire protection for the Casino which has two tower hotels and lots of other structure. If they had to have their own fire department, like the poor northern tribes do, it would cost millions to build and maintain. Red Wing and two townships finance much of PIC infrastructure. The Mayo Clinic provides the health care and the local school systems the education. PIIC could pay for this under the laws out of casino profits but they do not. Sone casino tribes do. It is called payments in lieu.

    • Submitted by N. Coleman on 01/11/2019 - 12:08 pm.

      If we went that route, we could also use the opportunity to try to teach the neighboring farmers how to survive on their own, without government handouts.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 01/11/2019 - 03:28 pm.

      “Teach them to fish.”
      This is demeaning on so many levels…

    • Submitted by paul jones on 01/11/2019 - 04:21 pm.

      Mac: Well said. As of the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, they are U.S./State citizens. Period.

    • Submitted by Terence Fruth on 01/11/2019 - 05:13 pm.

      You cannot generalize about tribal capacity to weather a shutdown except to say there are a few tribes that have casino cash flow aplenty to weather the storm. Prairie Island has hundreds of million dollars a year free cash flow from their casino. In terms of acreage under or planned for real estate development off the reservation, Prairie Island is the biggest developer in the state. All of these developments are funded by loans and grants from state and federal gobpvrrnment. There are no means tests and PIIC has grant writers and lobbyists. Red Lake is desperately poor. PIIC is not required to share their wealth with poor tribes. The Legislature has to fix the his by giving the Northern Tribes the exclusive right to sports betting in the Metro area.

      • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 01/13/2019 - 03:12 pm.

        Paul, the answer is actually fairly simple–no matter how many times you present the question all over the interwebs–which I have noticed has been a lot.

        Tribes are distinct political communities, defined in law as “domestic, dependent nations.” In its 1831 Cherokee Nation v. Georgia decision, the Supreme Court described the obligation of the United States to tribes as that of a guardian to his wards.

        Yes, all Native Americans since 1924 (and some nations before 1924) are or have been U.S. citizens but they are also separate sovereign nations. They are differentiated from foreign nations for the reasons stated above. And, it seems that time and again the courts and congress have agreed with that premise. Therefore your postings effectively do not matter.

        Now, of course, you could seek some sort of relevance and test your argument in the courts but until that time your point remains irrelevant.

        • Submitted by Terence Fruth on 01/13/2019 - 03:40 pm.

          Brian must be a lawyer and he has given the right answer to part of the question. The next part is how Native Americans get special privileges and immunities when that would be illegal for any other race since preferential college admissions based on race was deemed unconstitutional.
          Justice Scalia said that issue should be revisited that question should be revisited. This question is top of mind for practitioners of Indian law. Scalia raised the question in an Indian Adoption Law case. Under that law, no adoption of an Indian by non Indians can be final if the biological parent renounces an earlier waiver of parental rights. In that case it was agreed that the white adoptive parents of five years were good parents and that the child wanted to stay with the adoptive parents

    • Submitted by Terence Fruth on 01/11/2019 - 06:08 pm.

      Again, you cannot generalize. Prairie Island is trying to become more independent, realizing tribal gambling exclusivity, untaxed, is too good to last. They get millions to diversify and expand their holdings. They have one of the biggest and most profitable casinos and they have the biggest resorts in the state with the second largest hotel in the state. The last five years:
      16 million for a new bridge
      20 million for development off the reservation
      6 million for a new justice center
      40 million for an eltricity generating facility
      5 million a year for future land purchase up to 1500 acres.

  2. Submitted by tom kendrick on 01/11/2019 - 01:55 pm.

    And teach the farmers how to keep our water clean while we’re at it.

    As far as the natives are concerned, we’re still breaking treaties.

    These two stand as an interesting contrast. We Europeans ran off the Indians, telling them to learn farming and get civilized. Now our farming is trashing the environment and it is precisely those farmers (primarily) who oppose restrictions on their right to pollute the land we stole from the Indians. Oh, and we’ll keep serving up that familiar repast – broken treaties.

  3. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/11/2019 - 04:27 pm.

    Well, voting patterns suggest the tribes mostly vote for Democrats, so they know where to apply the pressure to compromise.

    If Chuck and Nan won’t listen, maybe the tribes will remember it in 2020.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/14/2019 - 02:23 pm.

      Compromise? As Trump himself said in his meeting with“Chuck and Nan” the shutdown is all his doing. No one with even a basic understanding of how this works is going to vote Republican because Democrats didn’t response to Trump’s fake crisis.

  4. Submitted by Michael Hess on 01/12/2019 - 02:00 pm.

    If only Minnesota had some Republicans in Congress who could get the White House to realize how destructive this hostage shutdown situation is to real people.

    • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/12/2019 - 02:44 pm.

      If only Minnesota had one Democrat in Congress with enough integrity to tell Nancy that she’s not just fighting the President. She’s fighting the Border Patrol, Homeland Security and a plurality of American citizens.

      Just one.

      • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 01/13/2019 - 02:46 pm.

        Mr. Senker, remember, it was Trump himself who said he would own this shutdown.

        He can certainly re-open the government and continue to use his skills as a master negotiator. He can also simply declare an emergency and take funds from Maria and Harvey relief as he has already proposed.

        But what I find most interesting is that no such crisis existed when Trump submitted his 2019 budget. It contained no request for $5.7 billion. His original 2019 budget specified: “$1.6 billion for new border wall in locations identified by the Border Patrol as necessary to obtain operational control of the border and impede illegal crossings.” Congress offered $1.3 billion. So, he owns this. It is not plurality, the Border Patrol, or Homeland Security he is worried about. It’s the realization of his own weakness and his fear of the Far Right–Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh,…

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/14/2019 - 02:37 pm.

        Nah, Nancy is just fighting for the truth. She understands that every argument in support of the wall is based on lies.

  5. Submitted by Joe Smith on 01/14/2019 - 07:11 am.

    Explain to me how the Government has helped the Native Americans when there is no shutdown. Somehow folks act like they are personally helping the Tribes by giving them some tax money. If you do not know, alcohol and drug abuse is rampant on reservations, Indian children do not do well in reservation schools and life is tough on reservations. Government handouts are not helping when there is no shutdown and much like welfare, it’s not working to bring folks out of poverty.

  6. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/14/2019 - 08:36 am.

    “He can also simply declare an emergency and take funds from Maria and Harvey relief as he has already proposed.”

    Considering the waste and corruption that has befallen the $4.8 billion for PR Medicaid fund, $2 billion to restore the power grid and $9 billion for housing and urban development projects, reallocating those funds to facilitate a project that will have tangible results seems like common sense.

    I expect Trump will make a good faith proposal this week, and follow it up with a declaration of National Emergency after Chuck and Nan refuse to consider it. That way, the much needed barrier gets built, and the Democrats own the shutdown.

    • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 01/14/2019 - 09:55 am.

      Mr. Senker,
      Here is what Trump said in “good faith”, in case you were wondering:

      “I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck, because the people of this country don’t want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country. So I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it…. I will take the mantle of shutting down.”

      Sounds like he says it is his. Wouldn’t you agree?

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/14/2019 - 02:34 pm.

      Tangible results? The wall will accomplish nothing. Zero. Its flushing money down the toilet. It didn’t get funded during the last two years when the Republicans controlled everything because they know its nonsense. That’s also why they won’t trade anything of value in order to compromise.

      Anyone who actually believes the wall has any security value is a fool.

Leave a Reply