As the federal government’s shutdown drags on, northwest Montana’s two tribal governments are using their resources carefully.
The 12-day-old government shutdown poses challenges for Indian tribes across the country, which receive a wide range of federal grants, partnerships, and other funds.
For the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, those funds include self-governance agreements with the U.S. Departments of the Interior and Health and Human Services. Under these agreements, the tribes had expected to receive about $10.5 million and $25.4 million, respectively, in fiscal year 2019.
It’s uncertain how, if at all, payments under these or other agreements have been affected by the shutdown. The tribal health department, funded by the Health and Human Services pact, was open as usual Wednesday.
However, the tribal government is sounding caution. In a Dec. 26 post on the Char-Koosta News Facebook page, the tribes’ Finance Office notified employees that “at this time, everyone should continue to report to their jobs as usual.” But it also set forth several restrictions on travel, contracts, overtime and hiring meant to conserve funds.
On the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Tribal Business Council Chairman Tim Davis said that “we’re impacted significantly” by the shutdown. While government employees who protect life and property, such as law enforcement, will continue to work without pay, other programs have either been suspended or will end soon as residual funds run out.
Davis voiced particular concern about a lack of Bureau of Indian Affairs snow removal and road maintenance services on the vast Blackfeet Reservation, and the future of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 68 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches under this program. In a pre-shutdown press release, the Department of Agriculture stated it would continue into February.
But determining the shutdown's full impact is no easy task. Blackfeet treasurer Tinswella Bird Rattler explained that "we have a lot of programs, and every one has different aspects of how the funding comes down.”
For the moment, Bird Rattler said, the Blackfeet are simply using their funds conservatively. “Depending on the length of what might be expected [with the shutdown], we’ll start getting more formal with our planning,” she said.
The U.S. House will reconvene Thursday with a new Democratic majority, which plans to take up several bills to reopen the federal government. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stated that any funding legislation must be able to pass both houses of Congress and receive a signature from President Trump before it receives a vote from the Senate.