The Shutdown Is Disproportionally Hurting Native Americans

The federal government shutdown has stretched to more than 30 days with no clear end in sight, as President Trump continues to demand his border wall. The crisis has shaken the lives of everyday people across the country, from federal prisoners to low-wage government workers. But there is one especially vulnerable population in times like these: Native Americans.

Most Indian tribes have only recently begun to prosper economically after nearly three centuries of oppression and efforts by the federal government to annihilate them. They face two challenges that have particular application now: Many tribal members are poor, and many tribes are dependent on federal programs to provide basic services to their members. A government shutdown in a situation like that is devastating. One tribe has already warned that "people will die because of the shutdown."

At least one-fourth of Native Americans live in poverty, the highest poverty rate of any racial group in the United States. On many reservations, unemployment exceeds 40 percent. Tens of thousands of Native Americans, both on and off the reservation, were having difficulty obtaining adequate food, shelter, clothing, and medical care before the shutdown. These problems have only gotten worse as the shutdown prevents federal funding — a major source of resources — from reaching the reservation.

As the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest, largest, and most representative tribal organization in the country, stated in a Jan. 10, 2019 letter to President Trump and congressional leaders, “Our communities rely on federal funding to administer key tribal government services, health care facilities, public safety, housing access, nutrition and food distribution programs, and social services,” and the shutdown “is destabilizing these programs,” causing “fear and anxiety” and personal hardship. Off-reservation tribal members are impacted as well. For instance, the Indian Health Service operates health clinics in urban areas to serve off-reservation tribal members and, as the NCAI letter states, these clinics are no longer receiving the funds they need.

Jean Harris, a mother of three who works part-time as an accountant at a health clinic, told National Public Radio recently how the shutdown has affected her and her family. Harris, a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, typically receives several hundred dollars in royalty income on profits earned from the sale of tribal oil and gas on the Wind River Reservation, which helps her pay the rent and purchase food for her family. Now, however, the federal office issuing these payments is shuttered due to the shutdown. When asked what she plans to do, Harris said: “Right now, I’m just praying, and I’m just waiting for a miracle.”

On the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, the tribal Business Council issued a memorandum stating that each day of the shutdown creates additional difficulties and risks. For instance, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has furloughed so many workers on their reservation that only one operator and one snow plow remain for all the BIA roads on the reservation, and the tribe’s food distribution program now donates food to furloughed federal workers who have not been paid in weeks. “We must continue to help one another during times like this,” the letter states.

An Associated Press report earlier in the month found that federal funds to provide essential services on Indian reservations is “dwindling,” causing deep pain in tribal communities “where one person often supports an extended family.” Some tribal health and social services programs, tribal officials told the AP, “are on the brink of collapse” due to the shutdown.

The federal programs designed to assist tribes and tribal members, it should be remembered, are not gratuities. They are programs owed as a result of promises and guarantees made to Indian tribes in treaties, in which tribes agreed to accept federal support, assistance, and protection in exchange for relinquishing vast landholdings and a peaceful end to warfare.

As the NCAI letter pointedly states, “The shutdown breaks the treaty and trust obligations to tribal governments. . . .We urge the President and Congress to end this stalemate, fulfill their trust and treaty promises to tribal nations, and invest in the future for all Americans.”

View comments (30)
Read the Terms of Use

paul r. jones

Mike Crichton: Really!!! don't see any cited court cases from you.

Mike Crichton

I’ve cited cases to you before on other pages. So have many, many other people. You’ve ignored them every time, so I fail to see why I should indulge you again.

For anyone else reading, google “disqus”, “native american” (or “indian”, or “tribal sovereignty”, etc.), and “paul r. jones” for all the proof you could ever need that this poster is even more impervious to facts than the usual ideologue. I’d post links directly, but the ACLU website won’t let me.

paul r. jones

Mike Crichton: Your latest post are "Excuses" compounded by Ad Hominem...cite the cases you refer-to. If not, you have nothing. Considering you cannot or will not answer my first question RE. Proclamation to amend our United States Constitution, here is a more simple one for you: "Where is the Statutes at Large for U.S.C. Title 25-INDIANS? If you don't know what Statutes at Large are in our United States Constitution scheme of things, then you entire series of post affirm you simple have no knowledge of our United States Constitution!

Paul R. Jones

Mike Crichton: Excuses. Post passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, they are U.S./State citizens! Not you nor anyone else has provided any Amendments to our United States Constitution to change that! Not one politician-state or federal-can provide the Statutes at Large for the existence of U.S.C. Title 25-INDIANS! Clearly, you are United States Constitution naïve.


Paul R Jones - Let's just forget about the Constitution. It clearly seems that the bottom line here is that you are a highly prejudiced individual - doubtless a lily white man who feels superior to others simply on that basis. It is also apparent that you have no compassion for your fellow human beings. White America's history with the Native Americans is something to be ashamed of, and no serious reparations have ever been extended by the government. What is currently done for these disenfranchised people is insignificant. I doubt that you would be happy living in the conditions that exist on a reservation. No opportunities of any substance have ever been offered to the Native Americans on any silver platter. And yet, many of their men put their lives on the line by fighting in our wars. And the coding done by them in WWII was invaluable. Read some history. Read about the Trail of Tears.

Tina K.

Dear Mr. Pevar,
Thank you for your report on the shutdown for native American's on the res & in cities. I simply had not thought of them & their treaties being halted. I assume Trump will close the government down again (once he gets his State of the Union address & has an time to sulk.) I will do more to help the Native Americans in my area--New Mexico.


I feel Mr. Paul Jone's confusion lies in that he is seeing native Americans in the lense of "race/ancestory" but doesn't realize that isn't really the true nature of the case. Unless I'm mistaken it's more a matter of dual citizenship. They are Americans yes but they are also a part of other nations which have treaties in place with the United States government. It's not a simple matter of race where one could say ok let's pay all black people such and such due to ancestor's slavery. I'm not going to get into whether we should or shouldn't have reparations, I'm not educated enough on the subject to argue it. (Tho generations of inequality gives certain races an obvious stepping stone so I would personally be in favor of.) What I am saying is that those two situations are fundamentally different in a way that I don't think Mr. Jone's realizes.


Well people through sacrifice comes reward. We have not even given up
Anything worth value to see our country and way of life go forward
Military give time blood sweat tears . We give nothing to live a free lifestyle
Quick to anger yell scream . Nothing solved. We must plan for our future
Not a feel go today we must help those in our country your neighbor and those you see need help we are giving away to those who come here .not looking at the ones who are here . I say tribes that have it hard move to California get all the free assistance
Housing food take it and then take it back to those in need .
People of Chicago in crime areas that want to get away come to California
Show them you matter let makes them know you are more than one and demand
The help
I am Mexican Indian American

Me too

OK fine were are in the mode to fix the past
Statues coming down and all
Pulling babies out fully developed
Giving Mexico back California pretty much
Let's do the right thing give America back to the Indians
Yea ah huh


Native Americans didnt just GIVE away 96% of our land. We were forced. This is stolen land.


Stay Informed