Jan. 25 (UPI) -- For Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, the partial federal government shutdown is not about President Donald Trump's quest for a border wall, but America fulfilling its promises made to Native American tribes.
During a conference call Friday organized by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., Keel said that his constituents care more for obligations the federal government has made to American Indians nations -- obligations not threatened because of lack of funding to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other agencies.
"Tribal government and Indian affairs, those programs are not partisan," said Keel, who also serves as lieutenant governor to the Chickasaw Nation. "Indian Country is not partisan politics. These treaty and trust obligations are a matter of honor to the country. We want the federal government open so they can meet those federal treaty and trust obligations as in the various treaties signed across the country."
Udall said that since the government shutdown started more than a month ago, the lack of money has harmed critical public safety, child welfare and healthcare programs at the bureau and Indian Health Service.
"Congress needs to pass and the president needs to sign an appropriations bill to reopen the government. Period, full stop," said Udall, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
Udall used the conference call to announce a bill to protect essential federal and tribal programs from shutdowns by authorizing advance funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service.
He said the programs supporting Native Americans are unique not only because of past treaties but so much of the funding for those programs come from the federal government.
"The shutdown is causing significant harm to communities in the form of lost wages, disruption in services, [causing] programmatic and legal uncertainties and [is] an infringement of our tribal sovereignty," said J. Michael Chavarria, chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors.
"This harm could soon become irreparable if the government is not immediately restored to fully operational status. The federal government appropriation process plays an essential role in fulfilling the federal government's trust responsibilities to the Pueblo tribal nations and Native communities."
For example, Udall said tribal law enforcement agencies have become so understaffed because of the lack of funding that they are limited in which calls they respond to on reservations, something he called a "lose-lose" situation.
Keel said the tribal nations have long depended on funding to provide those services, which are now drying up because of the shutdown.
"This is not just harming the treaty relationship, but it's actually doing harm to America," Keel said. "In the communities we live in across Indian country, all of our people are suffering. We call on Congress to end the shutdown and make sure this does not happen again. We call on the federal government to meet its treaty and trust obligations no matter what the political environment."
Ron Allen, board chairman of the Self-Governance Communication and Education Tribal Consortium, said that he hopes at the very least the shutdown will show why there has always been a need for advance funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other agencies connected with the welfare of Native Americans.
Udall said if his bill becomes law, it would become effective in fiscal year 2020, putting it on par with other agencies like Housing and Urban Development and Education, which also receives advance funding.
He said with repeated shutdowns, Native American programs need additional time to ramp back up and often lose their effectiveness in their communities, that can even threaten lives of those involved.