Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), center, serves food to furloughed federal employees at the World Central Kitchen in Washington, D.C., on January 24, 2019. Photo: Congressoman Deb Haaland

Navajo Nation resorts to food drive as longest government shutdown continues

By Acee Agoyo

The new leaders of the Navajo Nation are collecting food and other essential items for citizens impacted by the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer, who were sworn into office last week, are seeking unexpired and non-perishable items such as pasta, hot or cold cereals and canned vegetables and soup as part of the food drive. Household necessities like toothpaste, diapers, laundry detergent and cleaning supplies are also being requested as the shutdown drags on with no apparent end in sight.

“President Trump and Congress, the government shutdown needs to end immediately,” Nez said. “The shutdown is impacting our Navajo citizens. The federal government has a trust obligation to provide services to the Navajo Nation and other Indian tribes, such as healthcare, education, and public safety."

"Our nation also signed a treaty with the United States obligating the federal government to provide those services," Nez added. "Continuing the shutdown is a breach of trust and our treaty.”

With over 330,000 enrolled citizens, the Navajo Nation is one of the two largest tribes in the U.S. Its population is spread across three states -- Arizona, New Mexico and Utah -- and the federal government is a key employer on the reservation, with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service maintaining a strong presence there.

“There are many Navajo people who also work for the federal government,” Vice President Lizer said. “Our prayers are with those federal workers who have been furloughed and we commend those that continue their work not knowing when they will receive their next paycheck.”

Donations for the Navajo Nation food drive can be dropped off at the Office of the President and Vice President in Window Rock, Arizona.

BIA and IHS employees who have been furloughed and who have been required to work through the shutdown missed their first paycheck on January 11. They are due to miss another one on Friday, as President Donald Trump and Congress remain unable to reach a solution to the crisis.

"Tomorrow, thousands of federal workers, many of whom are living paycheck-to-paycheck, will miss yet another paycheck, and thousands more will be unable to access critical public services that our state depends on," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Overall, Udall said 800,000 federal workers have been going without pay through the shutdown. That includes 10,800 in New Mexico, which is home to a BIA regional office that oversees several agency offices on reservations, an IHS area office with about a dozen health care facilities, plus a large contingent of employees at the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians in Albuquerque, the state's most populous city.

A group of those BIA, IHS and OST employees, including a Navajo citizen, are now suing the federal government in hopes of getting paid so they can put food on the table, pay their bills and support their households. The Federation of Indian Service Employees, the union that filed the complaint last week, says countless more are hurting as a result of the shutdown.

"She is facing hardship because she is not receiving her earned wages and overtime and therefore cannot meet her financial obligations," the complaint in Rowe v. United States of America says of the Navajo federal employee.

Hopes of ending the shutdown were dashed on Thursday, the 34th day of the standoff, when a bill to reopen the government failed in partisan fashion in the Senate. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a member of the Committee on Indian Affairs, was among the few Republicans who joined Democrats in attempting to advance the measure.

"One of the things that I heard very clearly from both sides is, enough already," Murkowski said. "Enough already because that's what the American people are saying about this shutdown. Enough already."

Only 52 members of the Senate -- 46 Democrats and Independents, plus 6 Republicans -- voted to advance H.R.268, which funds the BIA, the IHS and other federal agencies. The bill needed 60 votes to move forward.

A competing proposal to reopen the government and provide some funds for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico -- the demand that led to the shutdown in the first place -- garnered even less support. The Republican approach, which Trump had offered over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, failed by a vote of 50 to 47, or 10 votes short of the 60 needed.

Before the vote, Trump declared on Twitter: "We will not Cave!" Only one Democrat joined Republicans to support the president's proposal.

The failed votes stand in contrast to those in the House of Representatives, where Democrats are in control. Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas) and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), who are the first two Native women in Congress, have repeatedly supported bills to reopen the government.

"Though the Senate didn't pass any bills today, I'm encouraged that the chamber has held votes to end the #shutdown and I'm hopeful we can quickly move forward from here to get our country back to work," Davids, who is a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation, wrote in a post on Twitter on Thursday.

As the Senate was preparing for the votes, Haaland and other Democratic members of the House marched to the chamber in the afternoon to show solidarity with the federal workers who are going without pay. Later in the evening, the Pueblo of Laguna citizen served meals to furloughed government employees at the World Central Kitchen in Washington, D.C.

The #ChefsForFeds effort has fed tens of thousands of federal employees and their families since being launched by celebrity chef José Andrés last week. The project has since grown to encompass more than 130 sites in 20 states, plus D.C. and Puerto Rico, though none of the locations so far are in or near Indian Country.

With no end in sight to the impasse, the Navajo Nation isn't the only tribal government growing increasingly worried about the shutdown. Chairman Thurlow "Sam" McClellan of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians said his people are slowly running out of money for key services and programs.

"People will die because of the shutdown," McClellan said in a statement on Wednesday.

"The tribe operates lifesaving, life-enhancing services in conjunction with, and dependent on, the federal government budget," he said. "These vital services are slowly being discontinued and will eventually stop altogether the longer the shutdown continues."

Donations for the Navajo Nation food drive can be dropped off at the Office of the President and Vice President in Window Rock, Arizona. For more information, call Sarah L. Woodie-Jackson at (928) 871-7000 or email

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