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Government Shutdown Strikes Home On Wind River Reservation

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When the government shuts down, it can't carry through on its historic commitments to Native American tribes. The Wind River Reservation's tribes signed treaties with the government in the late 1800s, giving up vast expanses of land in exchange for health care, police services and other basic needs like food. Eastern Shoshone councilor Leslie Shakespeare said, already some seasonal transportation employees had to be laid off because of the shutdown.

"I remember doing some of the interviews and some of them were like, 'please give me a chance. This is the only job that's available right now. I have a small family myself and I want to be able to provide for them.' So I worry about them," said Shakespeare.

He said the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs also canceled a regular meeting to determine how much to pay tribal members in their per capita checks. Those checks are their cut on profits from oil and gas projects on the reservation. Shakespeare said, because of the shutdown, tribal members won't get those checks in February.

"Maybe their only source of income is that monthly per capita amount," said Shakespeare. "Those are small amounts, but they're amounts to survive on. And if those amounts aren't there, it becomes an issue because now they don't have nothing to survive on for the next month."

Shakespeare said, luckily, his tribe isn't totally dependent on the government thanks to its casino, energy projects and other investments. But if the shutdown goes on longer than a month or so, he said it could affect public health and safety.

The Northern Arapaho tribe took over management of its federal clinic three years ago, and Wind River Cares Clinic CEO Richard Brannen said, that means most health care workers can still get their paychecks.

"We're able to deploy resources where the need is most significant," said Brannen.

But he said, every month, the government covers only 32 percent of their health care needs. And because of the shutdown that's shrunk to just 20 percent.

"It impacts us even more so because we're already starting out at negative 68 percent," said Brannen. "And so, what little money we do receive has even more profound effects on us than if another clinic that receives 100 percent of funding."

He said the shutdown has also hurt the morale of the clinic's federal employees that must work without pay. He said, with the reservations severe health disparities, the shutdown can't go on long before it becomes a serious public health problem.

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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