A joint tribal letter sent last week to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives John Boehner, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, signed by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and 65 tribes and tribal organizations, outlines the risk of deep sequestration cuts to the already underfunded federal responsibilities to tribal nations.
NCAI estimates that if sequestration were implemented, the percentage cuts from fiscal-year 2010 Native programs (when adjusted for inflation) would represent cuts to essential government services of up to 35 percent. Health care and public safety are two examples where NCAI and tribal nations fear major progress in recent years could be reversed by deep budget cuts.
The 2010 passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA) ushered in a new era where tribal nations are empowered to advance public safety in their communities. Before these changes took effect, data from 2000 to 2010, showed a growing crime problem in Indian country. Implemented using principles in the TLOA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Safe Indian Communities initiative, a two-year program that included targeted community policing, achieved a 35 percent overall decrease in violent crime across the four communities. Cuts to vital programs at Department of Interior for tribal law enforcement and funding for tribal courts under the Department of Justice will thwart emerging initiatives and significantly reduce critical funding for basic justice services.
Indicators in Indian Country highlight concerning disparities in health care for tribes, yet also show incremental progress in quality of life and health care. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the diabetes prevalence rate of 16.1 percent in American Indian and Alaska Native adults is almost twice the rate of 8.3 percent for the total U.S. adult population. At the same time, since 1973 Indian life expectancy has increased by approximately 9 years according to the Indian Health Service (IHS).
The sequester would be a setback to tribes and the IHS , which serves 2.1 million American Indians and Alaska Natives and is critically underfunded. The Cherokee Nation estimates that if the sequester hits IHS funding, 83,000 patients would not be seen, 127 health jobs would be lost, and a clinic may have to close. In addition, 1,000 fewer diabetes patients would be provided equipment, medicine and monitoring and 12,700 fewer people would be able to access preventative education about diabetes.
Tribal nations are members of the American family of governments. We are one of three sovereign governments recognized in the constitution. The federal government has solemn obligations to tribal citizens funded in the federal budget are the result of treaties negotiated and agreements made between Indian tribes and the U.S. in exchange for land and resources, known as the trust responsibility.
Before the fiscal cliff was ever a national emergency, tribal nations were already facing a steep economic valley. Many tribal nations are making significant progress to promote economic security and secure prosperity for our communities and grow entire regional economies. Given this success, Indian Country can’t afford a setback of this proportion, and neither can the United States.
It’s time that the president and Congress act to protect the Indian Country budget and ensure tribes are able to fully contribute to the economic recovery.
Keel is the president of the National Congress of American Indians, the nation’s largest and oldest American Indian and Alaska Native advocacy organization and is the Lt. Governor of the Chickasaw Nation, located in Oklahoma.