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Sen. Heitkamp: Devastating impact of shutdown on our tribes

Filed Under: Politics
More on: 113th, heidi heitkamp, north dakota, senate, shutdown
   


The following is the text of remarks by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) regarding the effects of the shutdown of the federal government in Indian Country. October 11, 2013.

Today I wish to talk about another devastating consequence of this shutdown, and that is the consequence of this shutdown on Indian Country in my State, and undoubtedly Indian Country all across this Nation.

In North Dakota we have five Indian reservations which are home to many Native-American families. These are communities where economic development and many times employment have been trying to get a foothold, trying to catch up, and where many of my State's most vulnerable individuals live. We have heard a lot and much has been made about the United States living up to its obligations, its contract obligations, its obligations to the entities that hold our debt, but we haven't talked about the United States living up to its treaty obligations to Indian tribes in this country. This shutdown poses a serious--and I am not exaggerating--a serious threat to the basic services the Federal Government provides to Native-American families as part of its trust, its contract, its obligation to Native Americans and Native-American nations.

I recently had a discussion with tribal chairs all across North Dakota. I was hearing more and more of the kind of horror stories we hear when all of a sudden weather is coming and food assistance is needed and fuel assistance is needed. I wish to share with this body today the stories I heard, because they are telling stories about how foolish and how dangerous this government shutdown is to many very vulnerable families, particularly vulnerable Native-American families.

By way of introduction, most of the five tribes in North Dakota are direct service tribes, which means BIA itself performs critical functions to help Native-American families. So BIA is the place where people go to get assistance. With the shutdown, there are few or no BIA employees in each reservation to carry out this very important work. That means BIA's general assistance programs are no longer able to serve, for example, the 600 families on the Turtle Mountain Reservation who would otherwise receive an average of $97 per person to meet essential needs of food, shelter, and utilities. The food banks and the food pantries are overrun. It is not an exaggeration to say this shutdown has caused people in the Turtle Mountain Reservation to go hungry.

At the Spirit Lake Nation, something we have heard a lot about in the last year is that social services are stretched to the max, where we have problems in even a fully funded government; but today the vast majority of BIA child social service agencies have stopped, leaving children stuck in limbo in the court system, waiting for someone to find them a safe and decent home. Some examples: A woman wishing to report a sexual abuse of her son has been attempting to contact Child Protective Services for over a week now. When she went to the office, the doors were shut and the 24-hour on-call person didn't answer the phone.

At the same time, BIA law enforcement is limited--and there is a lot of acreage out there that they have to cover--to one officer per shift. They are patrolling 252,000 acres with one officer.

At the Sisseton-Wahpeton Reservation, almost 50 percent of the tribe's ongoing budget consists of Federal funds. The tribe is preparing to furlough more than 200 employees. Right now, the tribe is able to pay them out of carryover funds, but unless the government reopens soon, it won't be able to afford to pay these employees and they will be furloughed.

In a couple examples of great tragedy, the Sisseton-Wahpeton community recently lost a 3-month-old baby and, because of the shutdown, the mother has been turned away for burial assistance for her child.

Gerald Thompson, an elder at Sisseton-Wahpeton and a Vietnam vet--and I know on the floor with me is our Senator from South Dakota and he can attest to the great number of Native Americans who serve in our military, at a much higher rate than almost any other group. Gerald is a proud Vietnam vet. He receives a small Federal stipend which is not even enough to cover the basic essentials. His stipend is no longer available because of the shutdown. His wife is suffering from diabetes and stage 3 kidney disease. He worries about not being able to afford the gas to drive her to Fargo once a week, and he wonders how he is going to buy propane for heat for his family and his home.

At Indian Health Service facilities, health care workers such as those at Standing Rock recognize people still need medical attention, so they are still coming to work with no promise of a paycheck and probably, some people would argue here, doing so illegally.

The Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, which is at the epicenter of oil and gas development in the Bakken oil shale in North Dakota, will see that development slowed. There is always competition for rigs in North Dakota. Where are those going to move? Everybody is waiting for the rig to show up and begin to drill their wells. The tribes have had a tremendous opportunity not only to develop the resource that will help them economically, but to develop this resource which is moving us in the right direction for energy independence. But because of the shutdown, MHA Nation is losing a substantial amount of Federal oil and gas revenue. Right now, the tribes aren't able to get energy development agreements. They can't get drilling permits approved or have environmental impact assessments completed because BLM and EPA are shut down and not available. Those rigs will move someplace else. The tribe has hundreds of drilling permits awaiting approval and this is only going to delay them further.

The situation is also dire in urban Indian communities. U-Tech, United Tribes Technical College, is one of several tribal colleges that serves over 600 students trying to better themselves and another 300 children who attend their K-through-8 elementary school on the college campus. But because of the shutdown, they are reducing those education services to both the college students and to children.

The list goes on and on and on. It will only get worse. If we continue to not address this problem, we are turning our back on these very real needs. But I think also, importantly, we are turning our back on an obligation this country undertook when it signed treaties with the tribal people of my State.

All across North Dakota, families, workers, children, people who are disabled, are losing access to services and assistance and are losing their paycheck. Why? Why is this happening? Because Congress, arguably the greatest democratic body ever envisioned, is bickering and plagued with inaction. House Republicans continue to bring up individual bills that only address the issues of the day and programs that have only been written about in headlines. Whenever there is a headline, we can fund that because we want to say we are responding to those needs. Well, I think I need a headline for our Native-American families who are in dire straits, and for the Bureau of Indian Education as well as BIA. So I ask: What about Native-American families who are unable to get critical social services to afford food or housing because BIA is closed during the shutdown? Where is the bill for them? Also, equally important, where is the public safety for them? Where is the public safety for those tribal members?

What about the ranchers who lost a huge percentage of their herd not only in my State in the southwest corner, but also all across West River and South Dakota, who can't get assistance from the Department of Agriculture? Where is the bill for them?

What about our young farmers who are trying to build the farms of tomorrow and feed our country, who aren't able to receive their income checks because the Farm Service Agency is shut down? They can't even get their money. Where is the bill for them?

What about North Dakotans trying to start a small business or get a home mortgage and aren't able to access those Federal programs? Where is the bill for them?

It is time we stop this. It is time we respond to the very real hurt in America.

We hear a lot about who is winning and who is losing politically. That is a sad day when that is the deliberation we have, because it is the American people whom we are here to serve. It is the American people to whom we have an obligation. We need to end this impasse and to open the government.

My people in Indian Country in North Dakota need and want and believe they have earned that respect and a commitment to their treaty rights.


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