UPDATE: Cherokee Nation weathering ‘shutdown storm’
TAHLEQUAH – As the latest federal government shutdown entered its third week, Cherokee Nation leaders were cautious but hopeful that services and citizens would be minimally impacted.
“The tribe’s Food Distribution Program from USDA is still getting food deliveries to provide healthy food options for tribal citizens,” Principal Chief Bill John Baker said in a prepared statement. “Our WIC program continues to help mothers and infants with essential supplies. And our health care, housing and community service programs are still delivering vital services for our people while we continue to monitor these essential federal funds.”
Food Distribution Program manager Leah Duncan was initially worried that without federal funding, deliveries could cease at the end of the month.
“It’s just the uncertainty of whether we’ll get deliveries after Jan. 31,” she said.
On Jan. 8, the USDA announced presidential-backed plans to fully fund its nutrition programs in February “despite the inability of Congress to pass an appropriations bill that safely secures our borders.”
The move was lauded by Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. as a way to “ensure our tribal citizens, many elders and children get the healthy foods they need.”
The food program serves an estimated 6,000 families monthly, Duncan said.
“It’s supposed to be a supplemental food program,” she added. “But for many of our families, it’s the only food source they have.”
CN citizen Kay Hammer, of Tahlequah, had planned to simply “just eat less” if program deliveries ended.
“There’s not a lot I can do,” she added.
Like many others, veteran Bo Burrows and his wife depend on the service.
“Without the supplements they give us, we’d be hungry,” he said.
Prior to the partial federal shutdown, Treasurer Lacey Horn assured tribal councilors there were “significant cash reserves on hand.”
“This will help us weather any federal government shutdown storm,” she said. “You guys can feel some level of comfort that we’ve got enough to continue making payroll for quite some time before we have to start seeing reduced operations and those types of things.”
Horn added that in light of past government shutdowns, the Nation is now “always prepared.”
“You know,” Councilor Joe Byrd said, “it’s not so much what you do after the shutdown, but it’s what you do before the shutdown.”
According to the Congressional Research Service, the longest U.S. government shutdowns include 21 days in 1996; 17 days in 1978; 16 days in 2013; 12 days in 1977; 11 days in 1979; and 10 days in 1976.
Shutdowns in late 1995 and early 1996 were “of great concern” to Native American leaders at the time, according to news accounts in the Cherokee Advocate. When employees of W.W. Hastings Hospital worked without pay during the 1996 shutdown, local businesses and individuals rallied to help with extended credit and vouchers for food and gasoline.
In 2013, it was noted by tribal leaders that their now “healthy government,” thanks in part to casino revenue, positioned the CN to better handle that year’s shutdown.
The CN is using federal funds made available before the government shutdown took effect, Baker said. The Nation also has “a contingency plan to use set aside tribal dollars if the shutdown persists longer term with the goal that there is minimal impact on our tribal citizens or employees.”
“We do have growing concerns, however, for these federally funded programs if Congress and the president do not reach an agreement soon,” Baker said. “By treaty, the U.S. government has a federal trust responsibility to federally recognized tribes and that obligation isn’t being met during government shutdowns.”
Hoskin urged federal officials to “reach an agreement to reopen the government promptly.”