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Government Shutdown Impacts Native American Tribes In Wyoming


Native American residents on the remote Wind River Reservation in central Wyoming already say the federal government neglects promises made to help them survive. Over half the population lives below the poverty level. Now, with the government shutdown, people are bracing for even harder times. Wyoming Public Radio's Melodie Edwards reports.

MELODIE EDWARDS, BYLINE: Eastern Shoshone member Jean Harris is a single mom with three children working as a part-time accountant at a health clinic. But her paycheck isn't covering the bills these days. The shutdown coming on the heels of Christmas - it hit her hard. In fact, she's already way behind on rent and expects eviction any day now.

JEAN HARRIS: I'm currently packing and getting things prepared just in case. And, at this point, we don't really have anywhere to go.

EDWARDS: Next month, she won't get her per capita check. That's her cut from oil and gas profits on her tribe's land. These checks aren't much - about $200. But Harris says they do help.

EDWARDS: Normally, a per capita check would be something that I would pay my utilities or use for extra gas or extra groceries or something like that.

LESLIE SHAKESPEARE: That distribution isn't going to take place until the government's restarted.

EDWARDS: That's Eastern Shoshone councilor Leslie Shakespeare. He says the shutdown kept the Bureau of Indian Affairs from meeting this month to decide the amount of those checks. It's not only families that won't get those funds. His tribe's government won't either.

SHAKESPEARE: People start really struggling, and then it becomes a real life and public safety issue.

EDWARDS: Literally a public safety issue since the tribe uses those funds to provide food, shelter and emergency assistance to its members. Jean Harris would have been one of those receiving emergency help. And the public safety issue - Shakespeare says tribal police are federal employees. And, despite the shutdown, they're still on the job.

SHAKESPEARE: That gets tough on them as, you know, they're working and providing the service for our communities, and they're not getting paid. And they have their own families to worry about as well.

EDWARDS: Shakespeare says if the shutdown goes on much longer than a month, people will begin to truly suffer. At the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Arapahoe and Shoshone member James Trosper directs the High Plains American Indian Research Institute. He says government services for tribes aren't just handouts. They're payment for vast amounts of land given over to the U.S. government.

JAMES TROSPER: My great-great-grandfather signed a treaty, and there were agreements in that treaty. We've lived up to our end of it. Chief Washakie gave up a lot of land. My personal opinion is that the federal government needs to live up to their end of it.

EDWARDS: And their end of it was to take the land in exchange for health care, education and other basic needs. Trosper says the law needs to change to protect tribes from government shutdowns. He says the per capita checks paying for oil and gas extracted on Indian land are a good example.

TROSPER: You know, they got the oil. They have the land. And so we're expecting the payment for that oil and gas.

EDWARDS: Meanwhile, single mom Jean Harris continues to pack her family into boxes with no idea where she's going to go next.

HARRIS: Right now, I'm just praying, and I'm just waiting for a miracle and just kind of leaving that in God's hands right now.

EDWARDS: In God's hands and federal lawmakers'.

For NPR News, I'm Melodie Edwards. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Melodie Edwards graduated with an MFA from the University of Michigan on Colby Fellowship where she received two Hopwood Awards in fiction and nonfiction. Glimmer Trainpublished “Si-Si-Gwa-D” in 2002 where it was one of the winners of their New Writers fiction contest. She has published stories in S outh Dakota Quarterly, North Dakota Review, Michigan Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Crazyhorseand others. She is the recipient of the Doubleday Wyoming Arts Council Award for Women. “The Bird Lady” aired on NPR's Selected Shorts and Prairie Schoonernominated the story for a Pushcart Prize. She has a story upcoming in an anthology of animal stories, published by Ashland Creek Press. She is the author of "Hikes Around Fort Collins," now in its third printing. She is circulating Outlawry,a novel about archeology theft in the 1930's with publishing houses. She is currently working on a young adult trilogy about a secret society of crows and ravens.