Wisconsin Indian tribes feel rushed

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GREEN BAY – The kids had just woken up from a nap and were still rubbing their eyes sleep when they pulled tiny chairs over two small U-shaped tables.

Bowing their heads to say grace in their native Oneida language, the Head Start students were about to munch on kiwi slices and rice cakes drizzled with cups of water.

The Oneida Nation spends $ 233,000 per year on its Head Start program, which supervises 152 children at two locations on the reserve. Almost three-quarters of Head Start funding for the Green Bay area tribe is paid for by federal funds, or approximately $ 172,000.

But all federal funds going to Oneida and other tribes in Wisconsin, as well as Indian tribes across the country, have dried up since the federal government shutdown.

The tribes of Wisconsin are using their own funds to continue to provide education, health, law enforcement, pantries and other services, but if the shutdown lasts much longer – and there There is no sign that the stalemate is ending anytime soon – some services could be cut or cut, hires could be frozen, workers could be made redundant and other drastic measures could be taken.

Oneida Nation Vice President Brandon Stevens is shown in an interview Wednesday Jan.9 on the Oneida Indian Reservation.  The tribe is doing better with the federal government shutdown than other tribes due to planning done following the 2013 shutdown.

“We are fortunate to have the infrastructure and the workforce here. A lot of tribes don’t,” said Oneida vice president Brandon Yellowbird Stevens. “We can supplant the loss of funds with emergency emergency funding.”

But the tribe’s emergency funding isn’t unlimited and it’s designed for emergencies, and no one knows how long the already longest federal shutdown will last.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has laid off 2,295 of its 4,057 employees, The New York Times reported.

When Oneida’s Self-Government Coordinator Candice Skenandore tries to contact someone in the office, which she does on a daily basis for her job, she receives automatic email responses indicating that the person she is trying to join is on leave for an indefinite period. The same goes for voicemail.

Skenandore is negotiating a new funding agreement for tribal health services and is awaiting grant approvals and funding authorizations for several programs. But everything is on hold and Skenandore knows it will take several weeks, if not months, for federal employees to level up once the shutdown is complete.

Skenandore is expected to attend a meeting of the Tribal Self-Governance Advisory Council in Washington, DC on January 21, but she is uncertain whether the meeting will take place.

Pharmacy technician Megan Rasmussen works in the pharmacy at the Oneida Indian Reservation Community Health Services Clinic in Oneida.  The pharmacy, which fills about 1,000 prescriptions each day, is part of the clinic, which receives about $ 20 million a year in federal funding.  Behind it are two automated dispensing systems for 450 of the most commonly prescribed drugs.

The shutdown “prevents us from doing what we need to do to improve our health care services,” said Skenandore, whose post is funded by the federal government. The tribe pays their wages during the closure.

About 1.9 million American Indians and Alaska Natives receive basic services from the Office of Indian Affairs of the Department of the Interior. Some tribes, like the Oneida, administer services funded by BIA money, while other tribes have their programs run by federal workers, many of whom are tribal members.

Decades-old treaty services

Due to treaties negotiated decades ago, money funneled to tribes for health care, education, law enforcement and other services is in return for abandonment by tribal nations millions of acres of land in the 1800s. Indeed, the tribes prepaid with land for funds now blocked by the closure.

There is no guarantee that the tribes will ever see this money. Stevens said the Oneida tribe never received the money they were owed and was not paid during the 2013 government shutdown.

A dry-erase board shows English words and their equivalents in the Oneida language outside a Head Start classroom on the Oneida Indian Reservation in Oneida.

“We have ceded millions of acres of land and in return the United States has said it will pay for health and education,” Stevens said.

The Oneida tribe was based in New York at the time and ceded 3 million acres. He then moved to Wisconsin.

Stevens points out that the Oneida were among America’s earliest allies, fighting alongside American troops and helping feed George Washington’s army as it huddled up in Valley Forge during the brutal winter of 1777. The tribe continues to receive a token annuity of $ 1,800 each year. of the Department of the Treasury as part of a treaty signed at the end of the War of Independence.

The tribe operates a 48-bed nursing home and health center that handles 350,000 patient visits per year, providing family medicine, internal medicine, behavioral health, dentistry, optics and public health services, among others. . Her pharmacy dispenses between 1,000 and 1,200 prescriptions per day, said Debbie Danforth, director of overall health for operations.

Last week Danforth took part in a conference call with other tribal health directors and learned that while some tribes are able to continue providing services during the shutdown like Oneida, some may have to close their clinics. in a few weeks.

“It’s really scary”

“It’s really scary for some tribes,” Danforth said.

Of the Oneida Nation’s roughly $ 490 million budget for fiscal 2019, about $ 50 million comes from federal grants and self-governance funds. There are 17,165 registered members of the Oneida tribe with over 4,400 living on the reserve, including 1,000 who are 55 years of age or older.

“Our message to Congress: these shouldn’t be discretionary, we shouldn’t be the first to be cut,” Stevens said.

The other tribes of Wisconsin face the same difficulties as the Oneida.

The Stockbridge-Munsee tribe is the largest employer in Shawano County with approximately 900 employees. The tribe does not have its own school system but provides guardians and a public safety officer for the school districts where tribal members are present, in Gresham and Bowler. He does snow removal and road repairs for many small communities in Shawano County.

About 1,475 people are registered in the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe, 500 of whom live on the reserve.

“But a lot of them are getting older so their health care needs are great,” said Stockbridge-Munsee President Shannon Holsey.

“The majority of our citizens are no longer in the workforce. They live on fixed incomes and turn to tribal nations for needs such as transportation to medical appointments and distribution of healthy food through the Meals on Wheels, ”said Holsey.

The Stockbridge-Munsee Tribe’s top priority is its rural health clinic in Bowler, which offers general medicine, dentistry, behavioral health, chiropractic and community health services as well as a pharmacy. Since there are no buses or public transportation, the tribe commutes between members who cannot make it to a doctor on their own and sends a registered nurse to help those who forget to take their medication.

The tribe pays for services normally provided by federal funds from its reserves, but Holsey said there was a limit to this, especially for a small tribe like the Stockbridge-Munsee.

Flambeau Lake tightens its spending

Two weeks after the shutdown, the Lake Superior Chippewa Flambeau Band decided to freeze all capital spending until further notice and told employees to be frugal with their spending. Not all federal grants have been affected by the shutdown, but some have been and tribal administrators meet regularly with the tribe’s accounting staff.

“We want to avoid service disruptions to the extent possible and we are working carefully to determine the impact on our general fund and avoid layoffs,” Lac du Flambeau President Joseph Wildcat Sr. said in a statement.

The Menominee Indian Tribe also uses reserve funds to keep essential programs open, President Douglas Cox said.

Like all tribes, the Menominee use a mix of funding to pay for services ranging from a tribal police force and justice system to a large health clinic and K-8 school. Menominee Indian High School is a public school district and is not affected by the closure.

There are 9,300 registered Menominee members, of whom approximately 4,000 live on or near the reserve.

Cox estimates that about 60% of the tribe’s $ 19 million annual operating budget is funded by federal grants. Cox and other leaders review the tribe’s finances daily during the shutdown to ensure services continue to be provided.

Cox is concerned that the money owed to the tribes from this federal government shutdown will never be paid because Congress would have to approve the payment of these funds separately, just as it should for federal workers who do not receive paychecks.

“We certainly hope that this (the shutdown) does not continue and that they come to a resolution so that they no longer withhold our dollars for something so frivolous,” Cox said in a telephone interview. .

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