By ANNIE LOWREY
Published: July 12, 2013
PINE RIDGE, S.D. — The Red Cloud-Bissonette family needs a new trailer. Frank, who is disabled, and Norma, his wife, are members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who live on the sprawling grasslands of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Despite their constant efforts to patch the seams of one of their trailers that was hauled here in 1988, rot and mold continue to climb up the walls. The family has punched a hole in the ceiling for a chimney for their wood stove, a necessity given the harshness of the winters but a fire hazard in the dry climate.
A second trailer a few feet away, where some family members live, including a grandchild, has no plumbing or running water.
The Red Cloud-Bissonettes are one of about 1,500 families on a waiting list at a local housingimprovement program that was recently told that it is being shut down. “These are real, real low-income people,” said Andre Janis, the housing program’s director. “If we go away, a lot of people are going to be without these services completely.”
And it is just one of dozens of cuts the tribe is stomaching, many of them due to the mandatory federal budget reductions known as sequestration. When Congress approved legislation for the budget cuts, which went into effect on March 1, they specifically exempted many programs that benefit low-income Americans, including Medicaid, tax credits for working families and food stamps. But virtually none of the programs aiding American Indians — including money spent through the departments of interior, education, health and human services and agriculture — were included on that list.
As a result, the cuts are starting to deliver yet another blow to hundreds of the United States’ most deeply impoverished communities.
“More people sick; fewer people educated; fewer people getting general assistance; more domestic violence; more alcoholism,” said Richard L. Zephier, the executive director of the Oglala Sioux tribe. “That’s all correlated to the cuts from sequestration.”
On the Pine Ridge reservation, home to around 40,000 members of the tribe, the unemployment rate is estimated at as much as 85 percent. Shannon County, home to the town of Pine Ridge, has a per-capita income of less than $8,000. The local economy is not just reliant on transfers from the federal government; it in no small part consists of them.
Over all, the tribe’s budget is about $80 million a year, of which $70 million comes from federal sources, said Mason Big Crow, the tribe’s treasurer. The tribe still did not know how much money it would lose, waiting on word from Washington, he said, but the number would be in the millions.
The tribe is cutting the size of a program that delivers meals to the elderly, many of whom are housebound. The school budget, Head Start program and health service are shrinking, too. The tribe has no choice but to cut everywhere, Mr. Big Crow said.
Despite the reservation’s extraordinary problems with crime — alcohol and methamphetamine abuse are rampant, many of the tribe’s youth are involved in gangs — its police force is absorbing more than a million dollars in cuts.
“We’re cut to the bone,” Ron Duke, the police chief, said. “Right now, we’re being reactive to things. It’s really hard to be proactive when you don’t have enough staff. We’re just constantly answering calls.”
The force has already absorbed a cut of more than 6 percent, he said. This autumn, it will cut another 8 percent. Chief Duke has let 14 staff members go. He said that at any given time, the reservation had only nine patrol cars on duty to cover an area the size of Connecticut, exhausting his officers as they chased down calls.
With the cuts, the poverty trap that has plagued the reservation for generations looks certain to worsen, with yet more families mired in deprivation, reservation officials and residents said.
“Imagine how people feel who can’t help themselves,” said Robert Brave Heart Sr., the executive vice president of the Red Cloud Indian School on the reservation. “It’s a condition that a lot of people believe is the result of the federal government putting them in that position, a lot of people are set up for failure. People have no hope and no ability whatsoever to change their fate in life. You take resources that they have, that are taken away, it just adds to the misery.”
While the effect of sequestration on the overall economy has been diffuse, with the largest impact falling on the military and companies dependent on Pentagon spending, nowhere has the sting been felt more severely than on American Indian reservations.
There was a time when the Bureau of Indian Affairs was “a bunch of federal employees providing direct services to tribes,” said Kevin Washburn, the assistant secretary of the interior in charge of the bureau. “Now, a big part of the way we provide services to Indian tribes is that we contract with tribal governments, so they’re providing the services to citizens.”
The bureau, he said, had no choice but to pass the cuts directly to the tribes. “Tragic consequences are occurring,” Mr. Washburn said.
“In Indian country, there’s a disproportionate number of people employed by the government,” said Amber Ebarb of the National Congress of American Indians, a nonprofit based in Washington. “There is not as much of a private sector presence in Indian country, which tends to be high-poverty and high-unemployment to begin with.”
Some tribes, including those that operate successful casinos close to major population centers, have the resources to compensate for some of the cuts, diverting money from rainy day funds or holding back nonessential expenses.
But dozens of smaller or less wealthy tribes and nations are not so lucky. Aaron Payment, the chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan, said the tribe was absorbing a $1.7 million cut, and trying to avoid layoffs and program closings. Still, if worse came to worst, it might have to move to emergency-only medical services, or closing entire programs.
“We put in about 50 percent of our financing, and the federal government puts in about 50 percent,” Mr. Payment said. “But we’re only meeting about 60 percent of our need to begin with.”
In the Navajo Nation, Deborah Jackson-Dennison, the superintendent of the Window Rock Unified School District, is in the process of reducing the school budget to about $17 million, from about $24 million, absorbing a cut from sequestration as well as from the local government. “It’s like getting two black eyes at once,” she said. She has let go of 14 employees, and moved the school district down to four buildings from seven.
In response to the cuts, many tribal leaders are lobbying the federal government to protect the tribes from sequestration — on both moral and legal grounds.
“We should be exempt from sequestration,” said Dr. Zephier, the Ogala Sioux director. “All tribes should be exempt.”
The tribes contend that the federal government does not just disburse money to them through federal programs. It meets its nation-to-nation treaty obligation to provide certain services to American Indians. Viewed in that light, a cut is not just a cut but a broken legal promise, and one in a long line of them.
“The tribes in this country, the federally recognized American Indians and Alaska Natives, have the world’s first prepaid health plan,” said Stacy Bohlen, the executive director of the National Indian Health Board, an advocacy organization based in Washington that has argued vocally against the cuts to Indian health programs. “They paid for it with their lives, and their land, and their culture, and the forced abrogation of their future.”
But on the reservations, a sense of resignation has set in.
“It’s one more reminder that our relationship with the federal government is a series of broken promises,” said the Rev. George Winzenburg, the Catholic priest who serves as president of the Red Cloud Indian School. “It’s a series of underfunded projects and initiatives that we were told would be funded to allow us to live at the quality of life that other Americans do.