BOIS FORTE RESERVATION — After a month of delays due to COVID-19, Chairwoman Catherine “Cathy” Chavers and Tribal Councilman Travis Morrison have been sworn into their respective offices.
In August, Chavers defeated former human resource director Miranda Villebrun Lilya by 26 percentage points to earn her second term as chairperson. With more than 523 votes cast and 100 percent of precincts reporting, Chavers led by 135 votes. The win by Chavers comes four years after she defeated longtime incumbent chairperson Kevin Leecy in the band’s primary election.
In the only other race in the general election, incumbent Morrison earned 53 percent of the 360 votes to win the District 1 Representative seat on the Bois Forte Reservation Tribal Council. He beat challenger Tara Geshick, who garnered 47 percent of the votes in the tight race for a role on the five-member council.
Chavers announced the swearing-in last week via a recorded video posted on the band’s YouTube channel. The ceremony was overseen by Tribal Judge Treuer.
The video marked one of Chavers first public appearances since she went into self-quarantine in August after being exposed to a person who tested positive for the coronavirus. “It’s been a while and my apologies,” she said. “I have been in quarantine for some time, but I am now out and about.”
In her address, the chairperson acknowledged the ongoing work of the public health staff and Director Terri Morrison for “managing through this difficult time” of the coronavirus pandemic. As of last week, the Bois Forte Reservation had 17 cases since mid-March. The band has zero active cases.
The Bois Forte Band is among several tribal nations in Minnesota which have reported positive cases of the coronavirus. As of Tuesday, the federal Indian Health Services reported that 1,724 people tested positive for COVID-19 in the Bemidji area.
Chavers requested band members to respond to the U.S. Census for funding purposes and also register to vote online to get their ballots in for the presidential election. “It’s extremely important during this election that we have the Native vote out there and to have our voices heard,” she said. “It’s been a tough four years for Native Americans and programs, so we’d like to encourage you to get out and vote for your candidates.”
In other news, Chavers discussed the Bois Forte Safe Shelter Program, which was recently designed to provide one-time emergency household assistance in the form of $1,500 to band members over age 50 and those with underlying health conditions to encourage them to stay home during the COVID-19 public health emergency and protect themselves.
She also noted a recent editorial in The Timberjay (“Tribes lead on COVID-19, Sept. 11) about “how tribes have been doing an excellent job when it comes to the pandemic and we are very transparent.” She said that “our culture is showing that we are very resilient and very transparent and we cherish our children and our elders.”
Chavers, the tribal council and Morrison had been steadfast in their approach to curbing the spread of the coronavirus on the reservation.
Under the chairperson’s leadership, the band starting in March declared a state of emergency, closed all government buildings, including the tribal court, and imposed travel restrictions and temporarily shut down the casino. Often moving at a faster pace than the state government, the band required all members to wear masks in public and indoors when the casino eventually reopened. The band also acquired testing capabilities from the federal Indian Health Service for tribal and non-tribal individuals who live on the reservation.
In June, the band announced its first brush with the coronavirus. That individual, who was infected with the virus in the Vermilion sector of the reservation, has since recovered and the band remains free of cases as of this week. Meanwhile, tribal leaders, including Chavers, have been cautioning members that the coronavirus continues to penetrate the nearing boundaries of the reservation in St. Louis, Itasca and Koochiching counties. Today the band remains in a “Stay Safe, Stay Home” order from April, citing, which asks members to remain indoors unless they need to work, buy food or get medical help or engage in outdoor activities.
The tribal nation has required government staff to wear masks to protect their Indigenous community members who suffer underlying health conditions at higher rates per capita than white neighbors who largely make up the demographics in the surrounding St. Louis, Itasca and Koochiching counties. Tribal leaders have cautioned members that the coronavirus was nearing the boundaries of the reservation and have asked them to continue practicing social distancing while the band reopened the Fortune Bay Casino Resort and outdoor amenities known to draw in outsiders to local lakes.
As the reservation continues to open up with the start of school, Chavers asked band members to “be very careful out there.” She continued, “Right now, Bois Forte has no cases, but we don’t want anymore more cases and we don’t want you to be infected either. So, please avoid large crowds and large gatherings. Wear your mask, wash your hands and social distance.”