BROWNING — The partial government shutdown has ended, but Roy Crawford Jr. isn’t breathing easy.
“There’s still a lot of questions,” he said Monday, pacing the aisles at the Blackfeet Tribe Commodity Program warehouse, as his staff and volunteers sorted 7 tons of food into bags for 400 families.
Crawford directs both the federally funded Blackfeet Food Distribution Program and the nonprofit Blackfeet Food Pantry. On Monday morning, the latter was preparing its third food distribution day since the government shutdown began, prompting furloughs and cutbacks on this and other reservations.
A sudden deal Friday reopened the affected agencies through Feb. 15. But “even though the temporary stoppage lifted … nothing’s guaranteed because they put out that deadline,” he said.
Even as millions of Americans cheer the resumption of federal services, Crawford and other Blackfeet leaders are proceeding with caution. With just three weeks of federal services guaranteed, it’s too early for their operations to return to normalcy.
“We don’t know if it’s over, until it’s over,” said Tim Davis, chair of the Tribal Business Council.
The shutdown hit two of the main federal agencies that serve Indian Country — the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service — and cut off other funding streams for tribal programs.
In western Montana, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes cushioned the impact with reserve funds and flexibility afforded by self-governance agreements. They had returned to normal operations Monday, according to tribal spokesperson Rob McDonald. But the Blackfeet remain constrained.
“We were impacted negatively,” Davis said. “We had to carry programs that the government normally funds.” The tribe is still tallying the cost to its finances, but the impact on its workforce is already clear.
Davis and two of his colleagues on the council, Mark Pollock and Vera Weaselhead estimate that of about 700 tribal employees, 60 to 70 were furloughed — and will be until the funding situation becomes clearer.
“People we furloughed because of the shutdown are still on furlough,” Davis said, explaining that the tribal programs that receive federal support take time to wind down operations when those funds lapse, and to scale back up when they resume.
The council decided that three weeks is too short to start that process. “We don’t want to return to normal … and then the 15th rolls along and Trump says ‘No, the government’s closed.’
“That’s what we’re bracing for. … We’re just kind of in a holding pattern.”
Pollock acknowledged that the situation has “caused a hell of a burden on those employees that are still in place to keep those services open, but they’ve done an excellent job.”
Meanwhile, the local federal offices face the task of resuming operations. Staff at Browning’s Bureau of Indian Affairs office had yet to take down a Christmas tree Monday afternoon. These employees, and those at the local Indian Health Service Hospital, referred the Missoulian to off-site public relations staff for information on their activities. Neither agency replied by press time Monday.
"Between the federal and tribal cutbacks, Crawford estimates there are "between 200 and 300 total employees that are unemployed right now." He’s well-placed to gauge this trend. For weeks, the Blackfeet Food Pantry has been working to meet their most basic needs.
“It’s been a madhouse since the shutdown began,” said one of its employees, Earl Heavy Runner, as he prepared to distribute food trucked in from Missoula. With 400 recipients expected, it was the largest distribution day yet.
Each one received three bags — one with frozen meat, one with nonperishables like cereal and pasta, and one with potatoes — plus a crate of apples. When they arrived, staff asked clients to sign their names and agency. After about an hour, 73 had picked up supplies.
One of them, Darren Grant, was returning to work at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “It’s a relief for all of us,” he said of the shutdown ending. “I’m happy now.”
He was still waiting on his paycheck, but as he loaded pantry supplies into his pickup truck for the third time in a month, he had nothing but praise for the program. “Roy Crawford’s doing an outstanding job,” he said, calling him “a great help to the furloughed workers not getting paid.”
Cathy Gervais agreed. “The guys are wonderful to us,” she said of the food pantry’s staff. A campground manager on the east side of Glacier National Park, Gervais was scheduled to return to work next Monday. In the meantime, she and three other park staff were volunteering at the food bank.
Their counterparts from the park’s west side had been helping at a food bank in Kalispell — too distant for them. Volunteering at Browning, she said, had been a “perfect chance” to give back.
One of the park staffers who’d joined her, Jenna Powell, said that “we were more than excited to come out to help.”
A Blackfeet Community College student who works on maintenance crews in the summer, Powell said that “the Park Service gives back, and we wanted to be a part of that.”
This would be their last chance to hand out food bags until the third week of February, when Crawford has scheduled the next distribution day. He’s concerned about the growing strain on state food bank resources, and the funding for U.S. Department of Agriculture programs beyond the end of the month.
He and other tribal staff dwelled little on cause of all this uncertainty, the ongoing fight about border security on Capitol Hill. But Powell, the student and summer Glacier employee, made clear that it had to stop.
““I’m eagerly waiting to see how it goes,” she said, voicing hope that “the people working for the government don’t have to suffer anymore.
“I hope they figure it out and stop messing with people’s lives.”
To support the Blackfeet Food Pantry, contact Roy Crawford at 406-338-7340.