As the partial government shutdown drags on, Native American tribes in urban and rural areas are facing food shortages and a health care crisis because federal funds that stock pantries and provide medicine for diabetes and opioid addiction have been cut off, witnesses told a House committee Tuesday.
In addition to the shutdown’s impact on indigenous people, citizen observers at national parks are reporting poaching of wild game such as deer, garbage piled high and trees that have been illegally cut as most park workers remain on furlough, former Interior officials who appeared before the committee said.
“We have thus far had to deny purchase of care requests that are critical to chronic care management -- insulin, blood pressure medication, thyroid medication and antibiotics -- thus impacting the quality of life for the individuals we serve,” said Kerry Hawk Lessard, executive director of Native American Lifelines, which provides services to indigenous Americans from Baltimore to Boston. Hawk Lessard said the organization closed its doors Saturday when funding ran out.
“We are not alone in feeling these impacts,” Hawk Lessard said. “Many of the 41 Urban Indian Health Programs that span 22 states are struggling without adequate funds.”
Hawk Lessard was one of three Native Americans who testified before the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee that arranged a panel of care providers and former Interior officials to address the shutdown’s effects on the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the system of national parks and wildlife refuges.
Aaron Payment, a representative of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan, said $7.5 million in federal funds that was due today will not arrive. The money is part of a $30 million yearly draw down that is normally doled out quarterly. Before past shutdowns, Payment said, administrations have reached out to tribes to discuss alternatives that could help them bear the strain but “with this shutdown we were given less than 24 hours notice” and “the administration is not doing that kind of outreach.”
As a result, organizations that serve Native Americans will struggle to feed those in need. “Even though our administrative funds will not run out until the end of this month, Indian Tribal Organizations are already beginning to furlough our warehouse employees and other staff in order to try and stretch the funds we do have ... to make sure our people get fed.”
Interior officials said the Bureau of Indian Affairs is aware of the problem and is working to find a fix. “We are analyzing our current funding levels to identify whether there are any outstanding funds, whether we can access them, and how to get those funds to tribes,” according to an email statement provided by a spokeswoman, Faith Vander Voort.
“Indian Affairs is working to manage this shutdown with our trust responsibility and treaty obligations as guides for our decisions within the parameters of the shutdown,” the statement said.
So far, the administration has failed in that responsibility, advocates said, by not considering the shutdown’s potential impact on Native people served by Interior and identify those resources before it began. To demonstrate what’s potentially at stake, Hawk Lessard said in the last two months six of her organization’s clients have died of opioid overdose in the Mid-Atlantic region alone.
Along with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Interior Department also runs the nation’s parks and wildlife refuges, which it has kept open despite little to no staffing. As a result, in some understaffed parks visitors have apparently turned to poaching, either for sport or food.
Richard Ring, an executive council member for the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, said at least three deer were taken illegally at Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. Ring said there are also reports of deer poaching at Big Cypress National Preserve near Fort Lauderdale and the Everglades.
Ring, a former superintendent at Everglades National Park, said the reports could not be confirmed because federal employees who monitor parks and reserves are forbidden from speaking. “Everglades employees are told not to speak to the press... all questions go to Washington, where questions are refused,” he said.
In a response Tuesday, a National Parks spokesman confirmed that deer were killed in at least one park. “Rangers at Great Smoky Mountains National Park are investigating three deer carcasses found in the park over the weekend," Mike Litterst, the spokesman, said in an email. "The case is still under investigation and the cause of death has not been determined nor is it known whether illegal activity is involved.
Two days after the hearing, Litterst followed up with more details in an email. According to the Park Service, three deer were shot outside the borders of Great Smoky Mountains. Because the deer were not properly processed by a gaming agency, their carcasses were dumped inside the park. “The individual was cited for littering,” the email said.
At Big Cypress, the email said, “a black bear was shot last week on what was initially thought to be park land, however the investigation revealed that the incident occurred north of the park.”