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Sequester hits those in need on Wind River Indian Reservation

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Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribal members are seldom fazed by federal budget cuts.

“We’re used to it,” said Penny Robertson, a community health representative for Indian Health Services. “You don’t even notice it because we never have what we are supposed to have.”

But the sequester is different. Children and elders are at high risk, tribal leaders say.

The ripple effects of the across-the-board federal budget cuts triggered March 1 will be felt on the Wind River Indian Reservation in the coming weeks.

Congress has hacked away at tribal funding in the past few years, and sequestration will take another bite out of health, education and administrative programs.

Indian Health Services will take a 5 percent cut as a result of sequestration. The cuts will jump to 8 percent or more in 2014 and will remain at that level until 2023, said Jennifer Cooper, legislative director for the National

Indian Health Board. Excluding the sequester cuts, the federal government funds Indian Health Services on the Wind River Indian Reservation at 55.8 percent of its needs, Cooper said.

“This isn’t about cuts. It’s about lives,” Cooper said.

Medical assistance programs for mental health, public health, obstetrics, gynecology, optometry and more will be cut. Since Congress passed a continuing resolution to fund government operations, local communities will begin to see exactly how much money they will have for the rest of the fiscal year.

The cuts will hurt women, children and the poor more than anyone else, said Allison Sage, director of the Northern Arapaho Tribal Health Programs. Tribal members on the Wind River Reservation have higher rates of infant mortality, chronic diseases and cancer compared to anywhere else in the state, he said.

“But we will all try and find a way to help each other,” he said.

Indian Health Services provides grants to two diabetes clinics on the reservation. Their budgets could be cut by 5 percent, or the programs could cease to exist if the IHS decides to send the grant to the chopping block. The director of the Northern Arapaho Diabetes Awareness Program, Bernadette Spoonhunter, received an email the first week of March from the IHS. It warned her of the consequences imposed by sequestration.

“If we’re not selected for renewal we will have to close our doors,” she said.

The clinics provide about 900 enrolled tribal members blood glucose meters and test strips, Spoonhunter said. More than 11 percent of American Indians on the reservation have diabetes, 4 percent more than white, non-Hispanics throughout the rest of the state.

The Eastern Shoshone Health Program is not hiring new personnel and is still unsure whether it will face cuts.

“There’s still a big need — just not the staff,” said Catherine Keene, executive director for the program.

Education programs at risk

Shanel Realbird earns $8.48 an hour.

Her paycheck will soon take a hit.

She teaches 4-year-olds at the Northern Arapaho Head Start in Ethete. Head Start offers preschool and day care services to families in need. The four Head Start programs on the reservation and all others across the country are faced with 5 percent cuts because of the sequester.

Employees will have three hours cut per work week, and the Early Head Start program, a day care program for newborns and infants, will be cut by 20 days per year. The sequester will chop $138,162 from the program’s reservation budget, said Joe Henry, executive director for Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Head Start programs.

More than $1,000 per year will vanish from Realbird’s paycheck.

“For teachers it will be hard to live off of,” Realbird said. “The paycheck will go from a little chunk to an even smaller chunk. And now planning time will cut into free time.”

The cuts won’t affect the 295 infants and pre-kindergarteners who attend the program.

K-12 students on the reservation won’t be as lucky.

The three Fremont County school districts on the reservation are each looking at cuts between $500,000 and $800,000. Reservations don’t have property taxes. So the federal government funds the districts through a mix of Title 1 grants and Impact Aid, a decades-old program given to school districts on federal land.

Much like Indian Health Services programs, Impact Aid is never fully funded, said Nina Garland, assistant superintendent of business and finance at Fremont County School District 21 in Fort Washakie.

Nationwide, schools on reservations received only 46 percent of their needed funding in 2012. Budgets for education on reservations are managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The BIA was .115 percent of the federal budget in 1995. In 2012 it was .075 percent, a one-third reduction, according to the National Indian Education Association.

“Unlike other students, whose education is required to be provided for by their respective states, the federal government has an obligation under the U.S. Constitution to provide native children with high-quality education,” said Dr. Heather Shotton, president of the NIEA. “This cannot be done without providing adequate resources to the districts and schools that serve our children on its behalf. The cuts to Impact Aid take away resources from native students that the federal government is constitutionally obligated to provide.”

Fremont County School District 14 in Ethete is the largest on the reservation. Its enrollment continues to rise while funding sinks. The consequence of the sequester will be fewer teachers, counselors and other faculty in schools. The district reduced staff by five positions in the past year. Jobs will remain vacant when teachers retire or move, said Dave Rushforth, assistant superintendent of business and finance at the district.

Along with the reductions, Rushforth said his district has made other moves to prepare for the worst. They switched health insurance companies last year, saving about $1 million.

“We could see this train wreck coming,” he said.

BIA, housing feel effects

The Bureau of Indian Affairs will take a $126 million hit nationwide.

It provides child welfare, roads, construction, law enforcement, land leases and administrative services in coordination with tribal governments.

The biggest fear is that local BIA offices will cut from law enforcement budgets. Tribes like the Red Lake Band Of Chippewa Indians in northern Minnesota will lose 22 BIA employees, mostly from police squads.

The Wind River BIA still doesn’t have enough information to determine what will be cut, said Ray Nation, acting superintendent for the agency on the reservation. He expects a 5 percent cut like other agencies.

Tribal Housing and Urban Development programs will take 5 percent cuts that amount to $1.38 billion nationwide. But tribal housing programs on the Wind River Reservation may be safe for the foreseeable future.

There will be no new hires, but grants to fund remodeling for tribal houses and the expansion of the Arapaho Health Center have been awarded to Northern Arapaho Tribal Housing, an arm of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. In communities where some families squeeze 30 people into a home, the grants will come as a relief. But not all reservations will be as fortunate.

A latent effect of the sequester will be a battle for grants, said Sandra C’Bearing, deputy administrator for Northern Arapaho Tribal Housing.

“The grant world will be more lucrative and more competitive,” C’Bearing said.

She and her co-workers are responsible for securing the newest funds that will keep the housing program’s head above water during the next fiscal year.

She’s relieved that 5 percent cuts won’t change the makeup of her program.

“Then there’s another side of me that wants to fight harder to make sure the government lives by its obligations it made to the tribes.”


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