WASHINGTON – With Congress required to come up with more than $1 trillion in multiyear budget cuts this fall, tribal leaders converged in Washington this week to make sure their concerns are included in the discussion.
As much as $841 billion could be cut from discretionary funds, money that pays for Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Services operations, among other things. Cuts of that magnitude are “really going to hurt my people,” said San Carlos Apache Chairman Terry Rambler.
He was one of two Arizona tribal leaders who joined more than 100 lobbying in Washington Tuesday as part of Tribal Unity Impact Week. The event drew tribes from across the country to voice their opinions on three major issues: the budget, tribal sovereignty and powers of tribal law–enforcement agencies.
The Budget Control Act, passed in August to avert a government default, mandated a cap on discretionary funds. The National Congress of American Indians, which helped organize this week’s event, projects the act will mean about $841 billion in discretionary fund cuts from fiscal 2012 to 2021.
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly said he hopes cuts won’t disproportionately hit tribes. But he concedes that cuts will have to be made somewhere.
“No matter what we say – we can be here and protest all we want – the money is not there,” Shelly said. “The federal government is broke.
Shelly said his tribe – whose land stretches across parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah – could handle budget cuts if the federal government would relax restrictions on energy production and tribal sovereignty.
“Do something else instead of just cutting us and throwing us out in the street,” he said. “Relieve us from some of the restrictions. Help us build our own sovereign nation to be more independent.
“Help us in that area, if you can’t help us in the budget,” Shelly said.
He said stiff federal regulations have hindered job creation at coal–fired power plants, Shelly said. Looser restrictions would mean more jobs, and less dependency on welfare, which would translate into savings for the federal government, Shelly said.
“We can help alleviate some of the recession and the deficit,” he said.
Shelly also said that allowing tribes to operate banks would give the federal government a more accountable channel for grants, loans and other funds.
But major policy shifts such as these would likely require the combined effort of the 550–plus tribes in the U.S.
“We can work together to have those restrictions lifted,” Shelly said. “We can be more independent, and we can have a true sovereign government.”
Uniting with other tribes to reach Congress is essential for some smaller tribes, like the San Carlos Apache based in eastern Arizona. Rambler said his tribe does not have much room left in its budget to cut.
Rambler said federal money currently makes up more than half of his nation’s budget, and the tribe is already dealing with an unemployment rate above 60 percent and a poverty rate around 70 percent.
Over decades, tribes were systematically made dependent on the federal government, Rambler said, and many gave up land use rights for promises of public needs such as education.
“Over 200 years of being encircled on a reservation, that was the strategy to make us dependent so we would be at their mercy,” he said of the government. “This budget deal is really going to hurt my people.”
Though there may be a tough road ahead for his 15,000–member tribe, Rambler said the San Carlos Apache will persist.
“We’ll continue to survive because we’re strong people,” he said.
Joshua Armstrong is a reporter for Cronkite News Service