Tribal Court

The Bureau of Indian Affairs Law Enforcement Services building in Fort Washakie houses the Shoshone and Arapaho Tribal Court. The tribes have recently told members that due to the shutdown, assistance will be scaled back or ended until further notice.

Wyoming tribes are cutting assistance to enrolled members due to increasing pressure caused by longest federal shutdown in history, which has frozen money for daily government operations on the Wind River Reservation and hamstrung access to programs that assist Native Americans.

The reservation is home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. Both tribes have recently told members that due to the shutdown, assistance will be scaled back or ended until further notice.

Many are feeling the shutdown’s effects, from seniors needing help to pay their electric bill to students who benefit from funding available for books. On a routine basis, members will seek assistance from their tribal government. The shutdown has made it difficult to impossible to provide that help.

The Eastern Shoshone Business Council — that tribe’s government — sent a letter to each of Wyoming’s delegates in Washington on Tuesday pleading for an end to the partial government shutdown that began in late December.

“Although the shutdown is partial, the federal departments and agencies that remain effectively closed are those that are inextricably linked to the health, welfare, safety and economic security of the Tribe,” the council wrote to Rep. Liz Cheney and Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso. “The shutdown is unnecessary and costly, but more to the point, it is a breach of the federal trust responsibility the United States owes towards all Tribal nations in the United States.”

Delegation responds

The partial shutdown stems from a $5 billion fight in Washington over President Donald Trump’s desire for a wall along the United States’ nearly 2,000 mile border with Mexico.

About three quarters of federal funding had been appropriated by Congress in late December, but the remaining funding package stalled over the wall clash.

Some 800,000 federal workers nationwide have been put off work or are currently working without pay, including an uncertain percentage of the more than 7,000 federal employees in Wyoming.

A spokesman for Enzi said in an email Wednesday that the senator is against the shutdown, noting legislation that Enzi sponsored to curtail shutdowns in the future.

Enzi’s spokesman, Max D’Onofrio, also noted that the senator had supported legislation to add border security funds to the government spending package, but that the Senate failed to pass that legislation. Meanwhile, the president has promised to veto whatever the House, which now has a Democratic majority, passes.

“Enzi hopes Congress will work with the president to soon reach an agreement that helps provide solid border security and funds the parts of the government that have been shut down,” D’Onofrio said.

Though the shutdown began under a conservative majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, ending it has become an increasingly partisan battle.

In an email Wednesday, Barrasso noted that he had voted to both fund the wall and the rest of the government. He placed blame for the shutdown across the political aisle and said the southern border was a problem that could not be ignored.

“If Speaker Pelosi stops playing politics with border security, we could reopen the government right now and get people back to work — including at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies critical to the people of Wyoming,” he wrote.

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The border wall has found support from Wyoming’s sole representative in the House. In an email Wednesady, Cheney accused Democrats of locking the government down for political reasons, criticizing members of the opposition party for a recent trip the Puerto Rico for a special showing of the musical “Hamilton.”

The congresswoman, who has advocated for the wall on Twitter, said members of the other party should “stop playing games with the fundamental services and livelihood of our citizens and get back to work.”

“Necessary services for our tribes and paychecks for federal employees are being held hostage by the Democrats who refuse to negotiate in good faith,” Cheney said.

Locked out

Partisan division was not the focus of the Eastern Shoshone letter to the delegation. The Business Council noted that the shutdown — which though partial still closes the agencies necessary for the tribes — has essentially locked the tribe out from accessing its own money.

“The Eastern Shoshone Tribe relies on the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to administer distributions of the Tribe’s own wealth to its members,” the letter to Cheney, Enzi and Barrasso states. “The wealth derives from the natural resources that the Tribe owns and receives royalties from its partnerships ... Our tribal members depend on these distributions in their day-to-day lives to support the financial needs of their families.”

Agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs — who regularly meet with the tribe to administer mineral royalties and other resources — are currently on furlough. The letter notes that the tribe has received no notice as to how long the agency will be unable to access the funds that go into day-to-day operations of the tribal government.

The Northern Arapaho Business Council is experiencing the same pressure operating during the shutdown. The council announced last week that it would cut all assistance due to the shutdown.

The tribe directed enrolled members to some state services, though many of those are also hamstrung by the shutdown, such as food assistance.

Uncertain future

The federal food assistance program, SNAP, faces funding uncertainty in the weeks ahead, according to the Wyoming Department of Family Services. The program, which services about 12,500 families in Wyoming on average, will release February benefits early due to the shutdown.

Funding of approximately $3.5 million a month is uncertain following the early February payments.

“It really is this unknown,” said Clint Hanes, a spokesman for the Wyoming Department of Family Services. “We haven’t had a partial shutdown of this length in the history of the U.S. Going into that, we really don’t know what is in store.”

Some federal workers in Wyoming have returned to their jobs despite the shutdown closing their agencies. The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the oil and gas industry on federally managed land in the state, allowed some workers to return to process oil and gas drilling permits and other red tape associated with energy production in Wyoming. Though these activities were initially on hold, the agency signaled to oil and gas companies and industry groups that it would return to work in a limited capacity as of last Monday.

Less assistance

Notices explaining that SNAP benefits would be distributed early were posted in both the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone business offices Tuesday, along with various notes regarding the shutdown’s impacts

The Eastern Shoshone tribe noted in a Monday press release that it would be scaling back assistance to members of the tribe due to the shutdown.

The tribal leadership would continue to consider the diverse requests for help made to the council, but it would have to limit its support depending on the urgency of the need and the availability of funding.

The press released warned members to have “a contingency plan.”

“The (Shoshone Business Council) plans to continue to help tribal members as much as possible during this government shutdown,” the council release states. “Tribal members should be prepared for the possibility that not all requests made to certain tribal programs and to the SBC will be fulfilled.”

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Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner


Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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