Bois Forte Tribal Chairwoman Cathy Chavers’ State of the Band Speech was marked by optimism in how community members have been practicing safety measures of mask-wearing and social distancing -- but her sometimes frustrating relationship with the federal government was also on display.
With the recent passing of the January Presidential Inauguration, Chavers used part of her speech to welcome President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris into their respective offices.
“With the new election being held and a new president and a new vice president - which is a woman, of color - that will be the highest year for us to make some progress,” she said during her speech earlier this week.
The State of the Band is typically held at the Bois Forte-owned Fortune Bay Casino and Resort in Tower, Minn. But due to the spread of COVID-19, the tribal government decided to address their community and their counterparts from elsewhere in the state in a 2 hour and 32 minute video on the official YouTube page.
Chavers’ comments regarding the Biden administration came after she noted troubles of the past year involving the harrowing spread of the coronavirus and struggles with racial issues across the nation and in Minnesota.
“2020 was one of the worst years ever not only due to the pandemic but also because it included another term now more commonly used: and that other term is systemic racism,” she said. “George Floyd was unjustly killed in Minneapolis and riots began and other racial tensions transpired. This was not only in Minnesota but across the country. These events have brought the racial inequities that not only affect Black lives but affect all lives including tribal lives, Native lives.”
She continued, “We know as a people we are extremely under funded in every aspect under our treaty agreements with the federal government and their inability to fund us for those inequities.” She added, “We lead highest in the nation with health disparities, especially in our area. Highest rates of diabetes, highest rates of cancer, highest rates of alcoholism, highest rates of incarcerated men and women in the state. We have the numbers and the facts, but we don’t have the funding.”
She also mentioned “systemic racism” when noting how the former Washington NFL team had changed its name to the Washington Football Team. “This has been on the radar for tribes for many years and because of the systemic racism that is now evident throughout this country,” she said. I’m sure there will be many, many more changes to come in the future. Finally.”
Chavers, who provided the band’s financial review of 2020, had started her speech by saying that the tribal government has been “more accountable” and “transparent” than in previous years largely due to reaching out to community members for input and the switch to weekly online meetings.
She described the “ongoing change” among tribal leaders. “It’s the need to change our old ways in conducting business,” she said. “We continue to have the same problems year after year after year with no resolve. Just an excuse is basically what we say. In my expression, we’re using bandaids instead of fixing problems.”
To remedy such issues, leaders began holding community meetings on how to improve the finances of the Nett Lake C Store. They also held meetings on a variety of topics, including ways to improve the sex offender registry program, the local school’s struggles to increase enrollment numbers, how to get tribal members back to living on the reservation and moving forward with the Nett River dam project. In the past year, the leaders passed a resolution and modified their contract with the federal Indian Health Services to open the reservation’s medical and dental to the general public without impacting tribal members.
Despite the progress, the tribal government continues to wait on several larger items. For example, the band’s jail agreement with St. Louis County remains unfinished. The hope is that people who are arrested on the reservation can be held in the Hibbing or Virginia lockups rather than being transferred 4.5 hours down south to the Sherburne County Jail. The holdup: the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
During her speech, Chavers gave a play-by-play account of how the band navigated the pandemic.
In March 2020, the tribal government had declared a state of emergency and went into their first phase of travel restrictions by implementing a red zone to help deter the spread of the virus on the reservation. The government closed government offices to the general public and established meetings by appointments only. Tribal leaders also voluntarily and temporarily closed Fortune Bay on March 18. “We wanted to do our part to help curb the virus,” she said. “These decisions were difficult, but we needed to ensure the safety of all and a less possible way to spread this virus.”
In April, the tribal government implemented the band’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” to encourage band members to only go out for essential needs.
Jenna Lehti, the general manager at Fortune Bay, said during the recorded State of the Band that the “two months that followed was a whirlwind of policy, changes and so much unknown.” The casino and resort reopened in June and the band was able to provide enough money from the Paycheck Protection Program to bring back managers and directors for a “successful summer,” she said.
Meantime, tribal government elections were delayed due to the pandemic. The general election was moved from June to August. Chavers and District 1 Representative Travis Morrison retained their respective offices.
The unprecedented year also brought on-and off-reservation volunteers, from local tribal government staff distributing coronavirus-related information and food throughout the community, to local workers organizing an elder pen pal program, to farmers in southern Minnesota donating potatoes, to five women delivering masks from the Twin Cities, to the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa donating fish, to the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe donating hams.
“With this pandemic, I’ve seen our community, our tribe, and our band members pull together,” Bois Forte’s District I Representative Shane Drift said during the State of the Band.
Chavers added, “This pandemic has really made it a time for everyone to come together no matter what. We all need to conquer this virus and survive and take care of everyone.”
In 2020, the tribal government received about $1 million in funding from the Office of Gov. Tim Walz.
Bois Forte Secretary and Treasurer David C Morrison, Sr. said during the State of the Band that the band was able to use state funding to help staff from the casino and resort to afford their health insurance. The remaining money was used for housing, sewer and water programs.
At one point, Chavers expressed that she “personally and humbly thanked” the governor and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, along with U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith and Representative Pete Stauber. The band continues to speak on a daily basis with other tribal governments, and talks weekly to the state and federal leaders.
“We are Minnesota One,” Chavers said.
The government also received $6.8 million from the federal CARES Act from the U.S. Treasury Department. The long awaited money allows the band to implement programs to address loss in wages and benefits for its community members.
As of this week, the Bois Forte had recorded 47 total cases since the coronavirus arrived on the reservation. “That’s really a small number compared to the number in the state of Minnesota,” Chavers said.
Now, band members are waiting for the arrival of additional vaccine doses from the federal government. “Native American people have always survived,” Chavers said. “And we are strong and resilient.”
She continued, “Eventually we hope that things will get back to our new normal whatever that may be. But it sure as heck will be better than what we’re doing now. Not being able to see people. Not being able to visit. Not being able to attend funerals. We hope that it will be a better day.”