Isadora White Calf has two big cardboard boxes in his house. They used to contain computers, but White Calf has not moved onto the information superhighway. Not by a long shot.
He is an Oglala Sioux who lives on western South Dakota's sprawling Pine Ridge Reservation. White Calf, 60, and 13 family members share a tiny two-room house with no running water. The computer boxes are used to store clothing, for lack of a chest of drawers.
White Calf and his family are among the poorest Americans, and tribal leaders say they are about to become poorer.
The Republican-controlled Congress has proposed cutting the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget by $180 million as part of the push to slash the federal deficit. House lawmakers also are considering a tax on Native American casinos. And both prospects leave tribal leaders in Shannon County, the poorest county in America, outraged.
"Congress and these new senators don't give a damn about the Indian people," Oglala Sioux Councilman Gerald Big Crow told the reservation's radio station last week.
The proposed cuts are galling to the Oglala Sioux, who say the federal programs that serve them are not welfare. The Sioux gave up huge tracts of land in treaties in 1851 and 1868, and in return, tribal leaders say, the government promised to provide health care, education and other basic necessities forever.
Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), a leading architect of the cuts, rejects that argument. "That's not a viewpoint of the treaties that the courts have ever accepted," he said, adding that proposed cuts to Native American programs, taken as a whole, amount to just 6%.
"It's a numbers game," said Assistant Interior Secretary Ada Deer, who heads the BIA. The Indian Health Service, separate from the BIA, would get a slight increase next year, but the BIA would be cut 10%. Funds that go directly to tribes would be cut by $110 million, or 15%, and some programs could be cut 30%. Deer called the proposed budget "economic and cultural genocide."
The BIA funding proposal is included in the $12.1-billion Interior Department appropriation bill, a final version of which was approved by a House-Senate conference committee last week. Both houses now must approve the conference report. On Friday, Vice President Al Gore said a veto is likely.
Whatever the numbers, it's hard to overstate White Calf's poverty. And their story illustrates how painful the budget cuts would be.
He and his children are chronically unemployed on a reservation where joblessness often runs higher than 80% and where families living 15 or 20 to a house is common. The White Calf family survives on a hodgepodge of benefits, centered on three monthly Social Security checks that two sons and a grandson receive for disabilities.
Their crumbling stucco cottage has electricity, and a propane tank fuels the kitchen stove, but the spigots in the sink are dry. Lacking the cash to connect to the water main, White Calf loads a dozen plastic buckets into his 1977 Chrysler and makes the rounds of local churches.
Despite a recent snow, White Calf hasn't moved the wood stove back into the house. He'll wait until it gets really cold because it takes up so much space in the small main room. Eleven family members sleep there--the adults on bunk beds, a double bed and a sofa bed, and most of the children on the floor. White Calf and two sons sleep in a storage room. "I sleep with the mice," he said.
White Calf has waited 21 years for public housing. "I've pretty much given up. My dad went like this, and I guess I'll die like this."
Paul Iron Cloud, director of the tribe's housing authority, said the average wait for subsidized housing is seven to 10 years. Fifteen hundred families get housing assistance, he said, and 1,200 are on the waiting list. Iron Cloud's housing budget would be cut by $2 million over the next two years under the GOP plan.
And Iron Cloud said that those reductions are separate from the BIA cuts, which will affect 54 reservation programs, including welfare, law enforcement and water and sewer construction. The police department, for example, might have to lay off more than a third of the 60 officers that patrol the 2.5 million-acre reservation.
A few senators fought the BIA cuts--most notably Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.). The Clinton Administration wanted more money for the BIA--$1.91 billion, up from $1.73 billion last year. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who represents Pine Ridge, said there is little hope BIA funding will match last year's budget.
"I think some of these senators should come out here and live the way we live for a month," said Francine Red Willow, who works in a program for new mothers in Pine Ridge.