A couple of years ago, construction workers dug up a 1,500-year-old Native American ceremonial mound in Oxford, Alabama, to make way for a Sam’s Club. What was once a site like the majestic mounds in Cahokia, Illinois, where ancient Native Americans may have performed funeral rites, is now a barren dirt hill with a few trees atop it — a forgotten and damaged monument whose fate parallels that of many Native Americans as a result of sequestration.
The $85 billion in automatic budget cuts that went into effect March 1 under sequestration (which resulted from Congress being unable to reach a budget deal all the way back in 2011) have cut funding for firefighting and for the military, taken a huge toll on national parks, shortchanged students and made things worse for victims of domestic violence. But the pain is arguably being felt the most on American Indian reservations.
While many programs that benefit low-income Americans including Medicaid, tax credits for working families and food stamps were exempted from the sequester’s cuts, “virtually none” that aid American Indians — programs in the departments of interior, education, health and human services and agriculture — were spared, says the New York Times.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs once directly provided services to tribes; they now operate farther removed, contracting with tribal governments who then provide the actual services. Some tribes, such as those who operate casinos in well-traveled areas, have felt far less pain from the cuts.
However, a disproportionately high number of people in Native American communities work for the government and sequestration’s budget cuts have fallen especially hard on them. One such place is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota where average per capita income is less than $8,000 and unemployment is 85 percent. The vast majority of the reservation’s $80 million budget for its 40,000 members comes from the government. Sequestration has meant cuts to police forces in a place where many young people have joined gangs and where alcohol and methamphetamine abuse is widespread.
Many tribal leaders have been lobbying the federal government to protect their tribes from sequestration. Their reasoning stems from legal grounds as well as moral ones. As the New York Times says:
The tribes contend that the federal government does not just disburse money to them through federal programs. It meets its nation-to-nation treaty obligation to provide certain services to American Indians. Viewed in that light, a cut is not just a cut but a broken legal promise, and one in a long line of them.
Robert Brave Heart Sr., the executive vice president of the Red Cloud Indian School on the reservation, explains how sequestration had made long-standing problems worse beyond what was thought possible:
Imagine how people feel who can’t help themselves. It’s a condition that a lot of people believe is the result of the federal government putting them in that position, a lot of people are set up for failure. People have no hope and no ability whatsoever to change their fate in life. You take resources that they have, that are taken away, it just adds to the misery.
That misery is causing deep suffering right now with families struggling to live in leaking trailers and mental health programs disappearing from communities where the suicide rate is nearly four times the national average. But the results of the budget cuts could last long into the future. Sequestration has meant $12 million in funding has disappeared for American Indian Head Start programs, depriving the next generation of invaluable early childhood education and also nutrition in the form of subsidized meal programs.
The destruction of the ceremonial mound in Oxford, Alabama, is another sign of the U.S.’s disregard for its indigenous people, also apparent in the cuts to vital programs. The pain of sequestration is only adding to the U.S.’s troubled legacy of broken promises and injustice towards Native Americans.
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