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Bureau of Indian Affairs seeks to allay tribes' fears about shutdown fallout

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Posted: Friday, April 8, 2011 4:28 pm | Updated: 12:49 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs on Friday allayed some fears of American Indian leaders worried a government shutdown would be devastating to tribes, saying law enforcement services and schools it oversees would not be affected.

However, the agency said it would furlough about half its 8,767 employees, stop providing funding for welfare assistance, and cease any road maintenance activities.

It also would discontinue higher education scholarships and programs that provide early childhood development and help students with classroom costs, spokeswoman Nedra Darling said.

Tribal leaders feared a government shutdown would be particularly burdensome for reservations, where federal funding often plays a vital role in everything from law enforcement and social services to schools. They've expressed worries about school closures and about money for police and other essential services running out. At least one Montana tribe says it may have to halt trash pickup.

But Darling said Friday the BIA will "continue to provide uninterrupted public safety services." And a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services official says Indian Health Service hospitals and clinics on tribal lands would likely see little impact because their services are deemed critical.

Other services that would be curtailed as federal employees are sent home are non-essential operations from local or regional BIA offices - such as permitting, business-site leasing or housing improvements.

During the 1995 shutdown that lasted 21 days, all Bureau of Indian Affairs employees were furloughed, and there were delays in general assistance payments for basic needs to 53,000 benefit recipients.

Former BIA Assistant Secretary Carl Artman had voiced concern that another shutdown would mean the nearly 60 elementary, middle and high schools operated directly by the Bureau of Indian Affairs would have to close.

But Darling says those schools, located in 23 states, would stay open because they're not on the funding cycle being considered by lawmakers.

However, Darling said if a shutdown were to last longer than seven days, two BIA colleges - Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque, N.M., and Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. - would be forced to close and send home their roughly 2,000 students.

The agency didn't immediately say what the impact to the other 120 schools under its Bureau of Indian Education would be. Artman said it would depend on the extent to which they're supported by the federal government. Many are run by tribes through contracts with the federal government, and tribes could choose to supplement that funding if needed.

Meanwhile, many tribes are still assessing likely impacts following tribal council meetings and sessions with staff held earlier in the week on how to move forward.

"There would be a significant financial impact on our daily operations, and the (tribal) council would have to make some tough decisions," said Robert McDonald, a spokesman for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana. "Our director of social services is very concerned about the services he could provide."

The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma was assuring members that all services would remain, tribe spokeswoman Judy Allen said. But she added the Choctaws feel it is "imperative that a resolution be found soon" so that federal funds continue to be available.

In Montana, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council recently met with department heads to go over their options if federal funding were suspended. They discussed dipping into other funds or running a skeleton crew to provide basic services to the most vulnerable residents, but no final decisions were made, McDonald said.

Loren "Bum" Stiffarm, chief administrative officer for the Fort Belknap Reservation, said his main concern is that a shutdown could occur as the Milk River threatens to spill over its banks. The rising river is predicted to go into flood stage within a week, and if it causes significant damage to the reservation, tribal officials will be seeking federal emergency assistance.

The reservation in northern Montana is home to the Gros Ventre and Assinboine tribes. Tribal leaders planned to discuss the Milk River situation with the Interior Department.

"We hope to come away with a formal assurance that they will assist us if the flooding occurs," Stiffarm said.

Fort Belknap plans to have only essential staff working if there is a government shutdown. Some programs and services would be put on hold, including garbage pickup, but the tribal government will continue to provide for the welfare of the people, he said.

Some tribal members and Alaska Natives also are among the federal workers left wondering whether they'll be furloughed soon.

Crystal Leonetti is a regional Alaska Native liaison for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She said workers at her Anchorage, Alaska, office have been told that Monday might be a matter of coming in for a few hours to change voicemail and outgoing email messages and cancel meetings.

"There's questions on everybody's minds on whether or not they're going to get a paycheck," said Leonetti, 34. "That's a fear that people have, and nobody knows the answer to that."

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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