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Yet another hardship

Victoria Wicks, Rapid City, South Dakota
September 30, 2013

The US government has left many Native American tribes in the lurch with the sequestering of federal funds. But they have become used to Washington giving with one hand and taking away with the other.

Image: Victoria Wicks

Every August, the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe hosts the Hunkpati Oyate Wacipi, or powwow, at Fort Thompson, South Dakota.

Hundreds of dancers in brilliant fancy dress and regalia fill the open-air powwow grounds ringed by covered wooden bleachers. Drum groups and the audience sit in shade that gives relief from the persistent South Dakota summer sun. A short distance away are carnival rides and games; in another direction are campers' tents and tipis, with cars parked willy-nilly on uneven ground and rows of portable toilets baking in the afternoon heat.

The Crow Creek Reservation runs along the east bank of the Missouri River in the center of the state. It occupies most of Buffalo County, which is, according to the latest census, the poorest county in the United States. This poverty leaves the tribe ill equipped to handle the automatic federal spending cuts that took effect in March. And if Congress doesn't act to stop the sequester, the county stands to become a whole lot poorer.

"But in our hearts we're actually the richest," Tribal Chairman Brandon Sazue said. He says the tribe has become accustomed to subsistence, and so the federal sequester is just another hardship in a long list.

"We survived so long without having enough funds, because the government promised us all this and they never held up to their part of the bargain," Sazue said. "They never followed the treaty. So we're used to it."

Tribes within the borders of South Dakota still rely on the provisions of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 - even though the federal government violated it almost immediately after it was signed by allowing settler encroachment and land thefts - for health care, education, and sustenance.

That promised education and healthcare have suffered most from the automatic spending cuts, about 5 percent across the board, according to Crow Creek tribal treasurer Roland Hawk, Sr.

Especially problematic are Contract Health Services offered through Indian Health Services. If an IHS facility doesn't offer a particular service to reservation residents, that agency refers those patients to a non-Indian clinic or hospital and pays the tab.

The Lode Star Casino owned by the Crow Creek Tribe does not look as fancy as other casinos. It's a white, simple house with a red roof
Lode Star Casino's isolated location prevents it from bringing in much revenue for its owner, Crow Creek TribeImage: Victoria Wicks

That's how it's supposed to work.

Hawk says IHS prioritizes those referrals, with the most serious cases approved for payment. In light of federal spending cuts, those referrals are getting tight.

"A lot of those patients are being denied for services they usually wouldn't be denied for," Hawk said.

Only life-or-limb care

Up in the northeast corner of the state, about four hours from Crow Creek, is Lake Traverse Reservation, where members of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate (the Dakota word for "tribe") are patients in the same system.

Sisseton-Wahpeton has a fairly new clinic, says Dr. Sara DeCoteau, the tribe's health coordinator, and with it came an improved budget, so they are not in the same fix as others.

"Many of the IHS facilities are on what's called 'life-or-limb care' where … the only thing that IHS will pay for is life-or-limb threatening," DeCoteau said. "Because of these cuts, many locations are having to split the life-or-limb threatening into 'Is it life-or-limb threatening today, next week, or a month from now?' You know, how life-threatening is it? And if it isn't life-threatening today, they're not going to issue a medical purchase order."

DeCoteau says the impact reverberates beyond contract health services. Congress appropriates funding for various other services, such as dental, mental health, and public health nursing, and all were cut by the same percentage.

"Indian Health Service is grossly underfunded to begin with," DeCoteau said. "Congress did not remember to exempt the Indian Health Service like they should have, and now the poorest funded system is being hit by the recession and the sequester."

Cuts to schools

As people who depend on federal funding quickly learn, the government gives with one hand and takes with the other. And so it goes with the Crow Creek Tribe's education system.

In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided funds for the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe to construct a new school serving kindergarten through 12th grade.

Now the school is faced with losing, over two years, 13 percent of its federal operating funds.

Young contestants in tribal costume line up after dancing at the powwow
Young contestants line up after dancing at the powwow to find out how the judges ranked themImage: Victoria Wicks

"It wasn't fun," said Crow Creek schools' chief administrator, Silas Blaine. In this first round of cuts, 11 staff members were laid off, and as a result, class size increased, and already overworked staff picked up new duties. Some 12-month employees, all reservation residents, were cut to 10 months.

So far, Blaine says, no programs have been lost, but if the 8 percent cuts come in October, as they're set to do if Congress doesn't act, more staff positions and programs face sacrifice.

Steps towards self-sufficiency

Tribes like Crow Creek are taking steps to be self-sufficient. Chairman Brandon Sazue says his tribe has cut out middlemen in land-lease deals and has started farming and cutting hay, rather than leasing out the land.

A stand with fresh produce for sale
Fresh produce grown locally is offered for sale at the Crow Creek Tribe PowwowImage: Victoria Wicks

The subsequent increase in income has supported the construction of a convenience store and allowed the tribe to pay off some debts owed by its struggling casino.

With increased income, the Crow Creek tribe expanded its powwow grounds, where brightly costumed dancers move to the cadence of traditional drum songs, the scene lit by the slanting golden light of the setting sun.

This First Nation has much to celebrate, but what it has gained is not enough to replace the federal money it relies on, the treaty obligation of the United States government that has never been paid in full.

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