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The Effects Of The Government Shutdown On Native American Tribes


Politicians continue their standoff on border wall funding, and caught up in the shutdown - historic agreements between the U.S. and Native American tribes. Treaties signed generations ago guarantee federal funds for health care and education in those communities. With the shutdown, that money has stopped. Aaron Payment is tribal chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Their tribal lands are on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Welcome to the program.

AARON PAYMENT: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So to start, give us some examples of where this money is typically used. What areas of life are going to be affected?

PAYMENT: So the largest portion I would say would be Indian Health Service. We're a self-governance tribe, so we get to operate our own programs and services in health from the funding that we receive. We receive $30 million a year. We recapture about $10 million additional in insurances and third-party revenue. Other areas that will be affected are child care, food distribution. We have a general assistance program for people who are looking for work, and this helps to pay their rent. Heating assistance is another area, headstart in education. All of those areas are going to be ill-affected if the shutdown continues past a couple of weeks.

CORNISH: Have you been getting phone calls, or have you been swapping emails with people at other tribes and communities saying, hey, we're starting to panic?

PAYMENT: Yes. So while my tribe has taken some measures to be able to withstand a shorter-term government shutdown - and we're talking maybe up to two weeks. Maybe three weeks we can survive under that before we have to make drastic cuts. But I have talked with some members of my tribe that are health directors under IHS in different communities across the country, and they're already working on furloughs. There's some layoffs that have already occurred. And also some are working without pay.

CORNISH: What does that mean in the long term? I mean, this is not your first shutdown, so what happens after these things occur?

PAYMENT: So in 2013 during the government shutdown, we lost $1 million in federal revenue that we never recovered. We also lost medical providers because they didn't realize their employment was predicated or dependent upon federal dollars.

CORNISH: Do you mean doctors, nurses?

PAYMENT: Yes. We lost one doctor, a nurse practitioner and four other staff. And it's difficult 'cause it has a compounding effect because it's very difficult to recruit and retain medical staff as it is in rural communities. This makes it even more difficult if they think that the funding for their positions is precarious.

CORNISH: I think people forget the extent of this relationship - right? - between people on native lands and the U.S. and these treaties. Can you kind of remind people what that relationship is, how it came to be?

PAYMENT: Absolutely. So across the country, for the 573 tribes, about 500 million acres of land was traded between tribes and the federal government in exchange for health, education and social welfare into perpetuity. And in Michigan, the five tribes that signed the 1836 treaty, of which my tribe is a party, we ceded 14 million acres. And so we just expect the federal government to fulfill their treaty and trust responsibility to follow through. A government is only as good as its word. And some people will ask, why do we follow these antiquated treaty documents? And my response is that they are older, but the Constitution is older. And if we follow and honor our Constitution, we need to also honor the treaties.

CORNISH: What do you want to say to the president and to Congress about this ongoing shutdown?

PAYMENT: Well, I think that a lot of the blame lies in one camp rather than both camps. The president has really backed himself into a corner. And sometimes they say that an animal is most vicious when cornered. But if we're going to survive as a country, our president has to figure out how to compromise and say, for the good of the country, we will move forward on border security, and a wall does not have to be part of that. He's trying to stay good to his base and his campaign promise for this wall, but we need to compromise in order to move past this issue.

CORNISH: Aaron Payment is tribal chairperson of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

PAYMENT: Absolutely. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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