To some people, a government shutdown is inconvenient; they can’t visit a museum, and many national parks are closed. But to many people in Indian Country, a government shutdown can be a matter of life or death. That point was driven hard in one small tribal community in rural Nevada, where the entire staff was temporarily laid off, leaving many elders stranded without access to health care, groceries or medicine.
The Yomba Shoshone Tribe’s entire revenue stream is through federal government funding, and when that ran out, on Friday, Jan. 4, Tribal Chairman Ronald Snooks issued a letter to all 18 employees outlining this dire situation. The letter stated that employees are furloughed until further notice, and that the official letter could be used to obtain unemployment benefits.
Devona Dosatimbe is one worried woman. She’s the housing director for the Yomba Shoshone Tribe, a small community of about 190 whose reservation is located about a four-hour drive east of Reno, Nevada. But the shutdown’s trickle effect means that Dosatimbe, the single mother of five children, is at least temporarily out of a job.
Devona Dosatimbe is one worried woman. She’s the housing director for the Yomba Shoshone Tribe, a small community of about 190 whose reservation is located about a four-hour drive east of Reno, Nevada. Courtesy photo
A recent post on Devona Dosatimbe's Facebook page.
Dosatimbe, a citizen of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, is in a situation that is potentially being repeated thousands of times throughout the West as tribal governments large and small, along with the agencies that serve them, struggle to provide even basic services.
“It’s very frustrating,” Dosatimbe told Indian Country Today. “The only source of employment in Yomba is the tribe. I’ve got a car payment, insurance, and other bills that need to be paid.”
She also mentioned having to care for her children, who range in age from 2 to 17.
Dosatimbe, worries about more than just her family. “About 80 percent of the residents in Yomba are elders,” she said. “Some of them work for the tribe because they don’t want to rely on Social Security. What are they going to do?”
Dosatimbe says the elders are in a precarious situation. They either have no transportation or are challenged to drive along northern Nevada’s wintry roads to get groceries, fill prescriptions or obtain medical care.
“The closest services are in Fallon, which is 112 miles away,” said Dosatimbe. And, the drive is normally a 2 ½ hour journey over windy mountain roads and flat high desert expanses to reach the closest Indian Health Service facility. With no tribal senior services staff to provide transportation, “The elders can’t get to appointments,” said Dosatimbe. “Even getting groceries will be impossible for some of them.”
The Navajo Nation
The nation’s largest tribal nation is also feeling frozen out from the shutdown. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye told Indian Country Today that the shutdown is impacting essential government functions, including transportation, on his 24,400-square-mile reservation which spans portions of three states in the Four Corners region.
“We have 7,000 miles of roads, including Navajo Nation, BIA, counties, states and federal roads,” said Begaye. “The BIA and Navajo roads are mostly unpaved, and when winter comes, those roads turn muddy.” However, road maintenance has slowed to just half its normal capacity, Begaye said.
Navajo Nation roads are dangerous and need funding to maintain their safety, in this image from 2017, courtesy San Juan County, Utah/ A San Juan School District bus sunk in mud and tipped into the bank on January 9. It took road crews all night to dig it out.
Due to near-impassable road conditions, many of the nation’s 173,700 residents—about half of the nation’s 356,000 citizens—aren’t able to get to grocery stores or to medical appointments. “They can’t take care of basic necessities.”
See related coverage: Navajo Nation Bus Routes Are Dangerous
The shutdown is also devastating to the nation’s economy. “Many of our people are ranchers,” Begaye said. “Not being able to haul water and hay over the winter to their livestock is a serious issue, since the animals can’t graze in winter.”
Matching funding and federal funding are slowing to a trickle. “None of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Indian Education or Indian Health Service people are available to sign off on funding,” said Begaye. “This means that matching funds are coming in. Contractors can’t work, and materials are piling up; this will drive construction costs up!” And, tribal employees have had to move out of BIA buildings during the shutdown. “We’ve got people trying to work in temporary, crowded areas,” said Begaye.
The BIA Phoenix office referred phone inquiries to their Washington D.C. office, which also did not return a call from Indian Country Today requesting information — specifically about which services the agency is and isn’t able to provide during the shutdown.
A contingency plan posted on the BIA website notes that 2,295 of the agency’s 4,057 employees are on furlough, while 716 of the 1,762 employees retained on staff are exempt from furlough or working without pay due to being “funded by other than annual appropriations.”
Begaye said that the nation is considering dipping into some of its reserves or looking at other financial sources to care for priorities like elder and veteran services and children’s programs. However, that won’t do much to help the many Navajo citizens who work for federal agencies that are currently shuttered.
“There’s a new semester starting at the universities, and federal employees are having trouble finding tuition money for their kids,” Begaye said. “Those young people may have to miss school this semester.”
The effects of the continued shutdown are rippling through Indian Country even though, as Begaye says, “These funds are treaty obligations on the federal government’s part. It’s their payment for the treaties that were enacted between tribes and the federal government.”
Begaye’s solution: “We need to exempt tribes from future shutdowns,” he said. “People need to realize that these are legal obligations, and the feds are breaking those obligations, which is illegal.”
Back in Nevada, Dosatimbe is pondering her next move. “I’ve got enough food for the next month because everybody here stocks up whenever possible because of how remote we are,” she said.
“But, when I called my insurance company, they said that they can only defer a premium payment for 30 days. As of Feb. 2, I won’t have car insurance, and I won’t be able to drive my car.”
Although the tribe informed employees that they are eligible to apply for unemployment benefits, “That won’t be enough to cover my bills,” said Dosatimbe. “I will have to move away from Yomba and look for a new job.
“It’s terrifying for people who have never had to do without.”