Sequester hits Native peoples hard

Fairbanks, Alaska — The budget cuts known as the sequester, which have yet to strike with full force, are creating major problems for Native peoples.

While programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, nutritional assistance (food stamps), disability payments and welfare benefits are specifically exempted under the sequester, payments to the Indian Health Service and for schools, training, crisis intervention, economic development, and many other programs oriented towards the needs of Native communities in the United States, particularly in Alaska, will face the full weight of sequester cuts.

Native communities are among the poorest in the U.S. Especially in Alaska, many rely on subsistence activities — hunting and fishing — because their cash income is so low.  Along with poverty goes poor health. A greater percentage of Native people suffer from chronic diseases like diabetes than does the general population.

Alaska faces a double cut. A large number of its jobs are tied to military facilities like Eielson Air Force Base and Fort Wainwright, near Fairbanks. The sequester is going to force civilian employees there to take two unpaid furlough days a month, the equivalent of a 10 percent pay cut.

Since nearly 15 percent of Alaskans are Native, the major cuts in health care for Native people and aid to education and mental health services are going to have a major impact on the broader Alaskan economy. This contrasts with less than 1 percent of the total U.S. population being Indigenous.

In an eloquent speech to the Alaskan Anthropological Association in Anchorage on March 16, Edna Abgeak MacLean, an Inupiat from northern Alaska and president emeritus of Ilisagvik College in Barrow, described a program to strengthen the Inupiat language using the linguistic skills of elders and grandparents. She feels this would help combat the devastating effects of decades of Bureau of Indian Affairs’ attacks on native languages and culture.

However, the language immersion and distance learning programs of Ilisagvik are scheduled to suffer major cuts under the sequester. Barrow is “off the grid,” with no road connection to the rest of Alaska. A majority of its population is Native and over 90 percent of them participate in the subsistence economy. Ilisagvik is just one of a number of Indian and Alaskan Native community colleges facing severe cuts. (www.collegefund.org)

Relying on White House data, a Web journal called Native Network News reported that “American Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages would lose almost $130 million in funding from the Department of the Interior. … The Indian Health Service and tribal hospitals and clinics would be forced to provide 3,000 fewer inpatient admissions and 804,000 fewer outpatient visits.”

The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma estimated that 83,000 patients would not be seen, 127 jobs would be lost, and a clinic might have to close. Some 1,000 fewer diabetes patients would be provided equipment, medicine and monitoring and 12,700 fewer people would be educated. (National Council of American Indians, December 2012)

In Alaska, where almost all the health care facilities for Alaska Natives are run by Alaska Natives themselves and where many Native communities are off the grid, community health aides (CHAs) “are the village equivalent to military medics, stabilizing and preparing a patient for transfer to urban medical facilities. CHAs have served on the front lines of health care in Alaska since the mid-1960s.” (Alaska Native News) While the government denies it, rumors persist that CHAs are going to be cut or eliminated.

In some Native communities, like Barrow, the local Native corporation has access to some oil royalties and has bought small jets to take patients to urban hospitals. Barrow has two such jets, outfitted and staffed as ambulances.

The reaction of national Native groups has been fairly muted. They obviously hope that Congress or the president will step in and reverse the cuts, which are small potatoes as far as the federal budget goes.

On the local level, the reaction has been sharper.

Floyd Azure, tribal chairman on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, told the Washington Post of March 22: “The ones who are supposed to help us the most, hurt us the most. This is disgraceful.”

“Five percent isn’t a lot when you have a lot,” Florence Garcia told the Post. She is president of Fort Peck Community College, which will have to close two community wellness centers. “But when you don’t have much, 5 percent makes a big difference.”

The cuts to education in Alaska are more on the order of 10 to 30 percent. They will go into effect almost immediately.

The whole effect of the sequester on the Indigenous peoples, in Alaska and the rest of the U.S., is to intensify the genocide that has been practiced against them for the past 500 years.