Federal funding key to providing education, housing, health care on reservations.

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PHOENIX -- Arizona's 22 Native American tribes depend heavily on federal money to provide their more than 200,000 members with education, health care, housing and public safety.

As the partial shutdown of the federal government continues, the tribes are expected to be among the hardest hit.

"The federal government is so pervasive on the Indian reservations that anything that happens on the federal government level in terms of funding cuts or a shutdown will have a major impact," said state Rep. Albert Hale, D-St. Michaels, who is Navajo. "Most of the medical services available are federally funded, the housing, the schools."

For now, school and community leaders say they're finding ways to keep services going.

"Indian people have survived all the atrocities that have been perpetrated on them by federal policies," Hale said. "They are resilient. They will find a way to survive this again."

The Navajo Reservation is the largest in the United States, covering parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Arizona's portion is home to more than 100,000 residents.

About three-quarters of the Navajo Nation's 7,000 government workers, including police officers, are funded by the federal government. The majority of the Navajo Nation's programs, including health care and social services, are also federally funded.

So far, the Navajo Nation has not been affected by the federal government's shutdown. No workers have been furloughed, and schools, social services and public safety are still operating, said Erny Zah, director of communications for the offices of president and vice president of the Navajo Nation.

But that's partly because many of those employees, including police and medical personnel, are among those workers the federal government considers essential and has allowed to remain on the job and partly because the Navajo Nation operates on different funding cycles that haven't been affected so far, Zah said.

Officials have instructed program supervisors to develop contingency plans in case the shutdown drags on.

Navajo officials are also concerned that some projects run jointly with the federal government could be hurt.

For example, the Navajo Nation is trying to buy a coal mine southwest of Farmington, N.M., from BHP Billiton. But Navajo officials are concerned they won't be able to meet the deadline to finalize negotiations by the end of the month if the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the federal Office of Surface Mines at the Department of Interior remain closed.

"Even though we will be open, we won't be able to move forward with some things," Zah said. "It's like we are playing tennis and our doubles partner is out. So as we are going on with this tennis match, we don't have our partner with us."

Rep. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Cameron, said the shutdown has put her out of a job. Between legislative sessions, she runs a non-profit agricultural program on the Navajo Reservation.

"We operate basically by grant funding," she said, adding that without a federal farm bill, there is no grant money.

She said she's keeping busy, but she's worried for herself and her community. "I'm a single parent. I have to bring home an income to my children," she said.

But she said she and her fellow Navajos will make it through.

"You just hunker down and do your own thing," she said. "You do it yourself instead of hiring somebody, like wood hauling. You eat your livestock instead of going to Safeway to get a steak. And the barter system works well here."

On the Gila River Indian Reservation near Chandler, tribal Gov. Gregory Mendoza sent a letter to community members last week explaining that they have contracts with the federal Indian Health Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

He said programs operated with BIA money can continue to operate with funds left over from the prior year or with funds from the Gila River Indian Community. Community health centers funded by IHS can do the same.

"At this time the community will continue funding federal programs with community funds," Mendoza wrote. "Especially essential services like health care, law enforcement, elderly services, emergency services, housing and education."

But while schools remain open, some are worrying how they will pay their bills.

The federal government gives some schools on or near the reservations additional money, called impact aid, because their property-tax revenue is limited. Tribal lands are not subject to state property taxes. This money is allocated directly from the federal government to the school for each school year. Schools expected to start getting checks later this month.

"As long as the government's shut down, they are not getting payments," said the Arizona Department of Education's government relations director, Chris Kotterman. "That's a problem. A lot of them use that cash to operate."

Kotterman said it's also a double whammy, coming after the feds cut impact-aid payments as part of sequestration last year.

Kotterman said the schools can ask the state for a cash advance on separate funds they get through the state. He said they also could try to get a bank loan.

Mark Sorensen, CEO and co-founder of Star School, a small charter elementary school 25 miles east of Flagstaff on the edge of the Navajo Reservation, said the school relies heavily on impact aid.

"We are in a remote, rural area and the state charter-school formula gives us very little money for transportation," he said. "We rely totally on impact aid for transporting all our kids."

He said they also rely on impact aid to provide healthier lunches and breakfasts for students, many of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch.

"We are running low on funds right now," he said. "We will probably have to go to the bank and borrow money."

Sorensen said it's frustrating that his school has cut its expenses to assure it will operate on a balanced budget this year despite earlier federal-sequestration budget cuts and now they may have to beg the banks for money.

"If we as a school develop a budget and stick to our budget, why are we getting punished for other people not handling their budget?" he said. "I have to wonder why we are electing people to government who think the way to govern is to shut down the government."

He said they will do everything they can to ensure that the students aren't affected by the shutdown.

"But there's no guarantee the bank will provide us with a loan," he said. "Especially if the federal government is not being reliable."

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