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Indian Nations Squeezed By Sequester


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, when regular jobs can't be found or don't pay all the bills, many Americans turn to the so-called shadow economy, which is bigger than you might think. We'll talk about that in our conversation about personal finance just ahead. But first, we want to turn, again, to how the government is paying its bills or not. We're talking about the sequestration.

Those are those across-the-board federal spending cuts that went into effect several weeks ago. They forced federal agencies and employees to tighten their belts, but most Americans have not yet felt the pain of those cuts in their everyday lives. That's not true in Indian Country, where sequestration is already squeezing health and education programs for some of the country's most economically vulnerable people.

To tell us more about this, we called Amber Ebarb. She is a budget and policy analyst with the National Congress of American Indians. She's also a member of the Tlingit people. Also joining us is Lacey Horn. She is the treasurer of the Cherokee Nation.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

AMBER EBARB: Thank you.

LACEY HORN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Amber, I'm going to start with you, because I think most Americans do know that Indian nations, for the most part, have their own sovereign government. So why are federal cuts hitting them so hard? And are there in particular areas?

EBARB: Yes. As you mentioned, education and healthcare. These are treaty and trust obligations. The role of federal spending is really rooted in the treaties that were signed by our ancestors with the federal government. So the underpinning of all federal spending is fulfilled in certain programs in the federal budget. And they have been long - it's historically underfunded in every range of governmental services, from law enforcement to health care delivery to infrastructure development, economic development.

And this is because tribes often lack a tax base to raise the revenue to deliver these services. So although these services were guaranteed by treaty and signed in contracts, they have never been at parity with the rest of the population.

MARTIN: Well, give me, though, a sense of how big the federal imprint is in terms of the funding. Let's say - with most public schools, for example, the federal government picks up, let's say, roughly 10 percent of the budget of public schools K through 12. So what about in Indian Country?

EBARB: So for - because there's a lack of a tax base for Indian reservations, there's a program impact aid which supplements funding for Indian reservation schools. And the top 25 districts nationally here are most reliant on federal funding, are on or just off Indian reservations, and impact aid helps relieve these kinds of shortfalls. So there will be a $60 million cut in impact aid, which will directly affect 700 schools and services.

And these will affect 115,000 native students. So these are - because these are not forward-funded like most schools, these cuts will be coming down fairly quickly. And so decisions about teachers versus transportation costs will have to be weighed, and neither of those are really good cuts to contemplate.

MARTIN: Well, when you're saying forward-funded, we've talked about this before with school officials or with people who cover education more broadly. When you say forward-funded, most schools if they're going to feel the impact, they're going to feel it next fall.

EBARB: Right.

MARTIN: What you're saying is that schools in Indian Country will feel them right now.

EBARB: Right.

MARTIN: Well, let me turn to Lacey, here. Lacey is the treasurer of the Cherokee Nation. This is on your plate. Can you give us some example of some of the kinds of decisions that you are contemplating that other tribal leaders are contemplating right now to address this?

HORN: Well, this is a conversation we've been having here at the Cherokee Nation since August of last year. So we've been watching this and we've been planning for this. And at this time, we're undertaking cost-containment measures to try and absorb the impact as much as possible before jobs and services are cut back. We are implementing a hiring freeze for all non-essential positions.

We're canceling travel and training. We're delaying or foregoing any capital acquisitions, both large and small. And we're looking at our encumbrances to see if there's any changes in scope or quantity that we can make and strictly enforce the employee overtime. We are also waiting to get agency clarification on how these cuts will be applied. And we're getting ready to start our budget cycles for fiscal year '14, and we're starting the process of beginning the determination of the overall percentage reductions that our programs will have to make across the board, that they'll have to build into their FY '14 budgets and take that into account. So, you know, we're trying to absorb this to the greatest extent possible before we start making reductions in jobs and services.

MARTIN: Could you give us an example, though, that people might be able to understand, kind of, just sitting in their own living rooms?

HORN: Sure. Diabetes is a serious issue in Indian Country - an epidemic, really. And Cherokee Nation is fortunate at this time to have grants through DHHS to educate young people about prevention, provide necessary treatment. Right now, we have a 23 year old girl. She's a high-risk diabetic, 33 weeks pregnant, and she's in a tertiary care hospital.

You know, her kidneys are functioning poorly, and her family's worried sick. And also worried is her, you know, three-year-old child that wants his mama back. And sequestration will have such a devastating impact on Cherokee Nation's ability - and all tribes' ability - to help very sick people.

MARTIN: We're talking about the impact that sequestration cuts are having on Indian Country. Our guests are Lacey Horn of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Amber Ebarb is with the National Congress of American Indians. She's also a member of the Tlingit Nation. Amber, can you give us some examples of things that people sitting in their living rooms might understand?

EBARB: So another education priority for tribes are tribal colleges. So these cuts will be coming down, and these are really important to Indian Country, because they're culturally accessible to tribal students. A lot of young people who go off to college will - don't fit in culturally when they move to a big city from a reservation or tribal land.

So tribal colleges fit a huge role - play a huge role. And we've got some stories from some of the tribal colleges, and the Fort Peck Community College is remote in northeastern Montana. And they would be forced to close its community-based wellness centers and eliminate its GED and adult education program and extracurricular activities for students.

And as you know, many reservations have high poverty and not very many economic opportunities, so that this could trigger a domino effect since American Indians have higher high school dropout rates and higher mortality from diabetes and liver disease and others. So these - because many tribes are reliant on federal sources, as opposed to other revenue sources, this will have a disproportionate impact for Indian tribes.

MARTIN: One of the things, though, I think people still might not understand is this was debated for months, and people saw this coming down the line. Was there any effort - I mean, Lacey started talking about this, but Amber, I'm going to ask you this sort of more broadly. Was there any effort to meet this challenge ahead of time? And again, why now? Why is it that the public schools, for example, the schools are being affected by this right now?

EBARB: Right. This has been a long-running challenge. I mean, we saw it coming for a long time, all politicians did, and it was never intended to go into effect. The sequester was meant to be a deterrent and to force a compromise, and we haven't seen a compromise. And so once again, these promises, not obligations, which are funded in the discretionary side of the budget, are caught up in a larger political debate that is difficult for Indian people to influence because of our small numbers and remote locations and our political power.

We tried to raise these concerns, the situation of the Indian Health Service, in particular, as it should be exempt from the sequester altogether, we believe, because it's a treaty obligation. But it's been difficult to make that case with Congress, which this is such a large political battle about the role of the federal government in our nation and what it should do. I mean, it's hard to raise our case to a level that can be pulled out of this political debate.

MARTIN: Lacey, you were telling us before we started that the pain of these cuts will be felt beyond the borders of reservations. How so?

HORN: Cherokee Nation has such a significant economic impact on northeastern Oklahoma, which primarily is very rural.

A recent study revealed that Cherokee Nation and its subsidiary businesses have a $1.3 billion economic impact to the state of Oklahoma. We have that impact by buying and contracting locally. We also give of our tribal funds locally through donations and unrestricted gifts to schools, communities, counties, local law enforcements and nonprofits.

Cherokee Nation tries to be a good partner in our communities. However, when the Nation is forced to restrict its spending and its hiring, it will have a direct impact on a local economy and it will send an already depressed rural area into greater depression.

MARTIN: Can you talk a little bit more, though, about the point that Amber was making, is that while a lot of Americans will feel these cuts later on down the road, like for example, say, public school systems who are hiring next year; she was making the point that a lot of schools and a lot of institutions are feeling these cuts in Indian country right now. In fact, there - a number of papers have covered the fact that, for example, there was a school system in Montana where a number of the children have been suffering with mental health issues. There were five children who recently committed suicide in a single year. Twenty more made the attempt and this particular school wanted to hire a second counselor, but couldn't do it because of sequestration.

Why is it - and Lacey, I'm asking you this question - why is it that these cuts are being felt now in Indian country as opposed to in the rest of the world, and the rest of the country, where there seems to be a delayed effect?

HORN: Well, the cuts are being felt now because we're talking about, you know, the neediest people, you know, receiving some of these - receiving these services, and should the sequestration of federal funds for Cherokee Nations stand, you know, over time we will see such a great reduction in services in over the 10 years that sequestration is in law, you know, that - you know, we're in a position now where we may not recover from that.

MARTIN: Amber, before we let you go - and I understand that this is - you may consider this beyond your scope of responsibility, but there are critics who say that, you know, sequestration's hurting everybody and that Indian country can't be exempt from this shared sacrifice. What do you say to that?

EBARB: Well, we agree with many of the policies, the bipartisan principles that deficit reduction shouldn't increase hardship for the neediest and the most vulnerable and it should honor the promises that we've made to our nation already, whether that's children or elders. And also we should add in Indian country these were contracts signed between our ancestors and the U.S. government and it's critical to the well-being of our children, our elders and coming generations to honor those promises and acknowledge that although they're in the discretionary side of the budget, they should be fulfilled because these are solemn agreements made between tribes and the U.S. government.

MARTIN: Amber Ebarb is a budget and policy analyst for the National Congress of American Indians. She's also a member of the Tlingit Nation of Alaska. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Lacey Horn is the treasurer of the Cherokee Nation. She was kind enough to join us from Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us. Please do keep us posted.

HORN: Thank you.

EBARB: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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