And in a school system where five children recently committed suicide in a single year — and 20 more made the attempt — plans to hire a second guidance counselor at the high school have been scrapped, leaving one person to advise some 200 students.
“The ones who are supposed to help us the most, hurt us the most,” said Floyd Azure, the 56-year-old tribal chairman, who views the sequester as another in a long line of promises broken by the federal government. “This is disgraceful.”
Few schools in America depend more heavily on the federal government than those on Indian reservations, which have no private landowners to tax. Washington pays about 10 percent of the budget for a typical U.S. public school district; on federal lands, it contributes as much as 60 percent.
While Washington debates the pros and cons of the sequester, the effects are already tangible in Poplar. Even marginal cuts can have a major impact on a reservation struggling with chronic substance abuse, unemployment and other ills, tribal leaders and residents say.
“Five percent isn’t a lot when you have a lot,” said Florence Garcia, the president of Fort Peck Community College, which is looking to close two community wellness centers because of the sequester. “But when you don’t have much, five percent makes a big difference.”
The school system — for which federal funding already had been reduced before the sequester — is looking for $1.2 million in additional cuts, partly by not filling jobs that go vacant. The Indian Health Service, the reservation’s main source for health care, will also be cut by 8 percent, and Head Start, which serves 240 toddlers, will be cut by 5 percent, officials said.
“Instead of trying to cut, we should be adding,” said Kent Hoffman, the vice principal at the high school, who is also filling in as athletic director, another job that will not be filled. “To me, this is insane.”
Located in the northeast corner of Montana, north of the Missouri River, Fort Peck is home to two Indian nations, the Sioux and the Assiniboine, which jointly form the Fort Peck tribe. The tribe has roughly 13,000 members, but just half live on the 2-million-acre reservation.
The unemployment rate is more than 50 percent, and problems with alcohol and methamphetamines are widespread, according to tribal leaders. About three of every four children live in poverty. At the high school on any given day, only about half the students show up, said Principal Rayna Neumiller-Hartz.
Stray dogs wander the streets of Poplar, the government seat, which has a few tiny markets, a bar and several gas stations. The streets are littered with the charred remains of buildings because there is no money to clear away debris after a fire.