A Year-Long Emergency


Pandemic anniversary not cause for celebration, but Band's response is worth remembering

March 13, 2020 — Friday the 13th — was the day the pandemic got real for Minnesotans when 14 cases of the disease were reported in the state and Governor Tim Walz declared a State of Emergency.

The Mille Lacs Band’s Tribal Emergency Response Committee (TERC) had already been activated, and the group — which is composed of Commissioners and other high-level employees — met all day on March 14 to plan the Band’s response.

On March 15, Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin declared a State of Emergency after Band Assembly passed emergency legislation authorizing her to do so.

On March 16, Grand Casinos were closed — the first tribal casinos in the state to take such serious measures to protect employees and guests.

On the same day, tribal government staffing levels were reduced, and on March 17, schools were closed and the Chief Executive delivered her first video update on the crisis.

On March 24, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe postponed the primary election scheduled for March 31 until June 9.
On March 25, 2020, the Chief Executive signed a ”stay-at-home” order for Band members and other tribal members living within the Band’s territorial jurisdiction.

Amid a blizzard of information, the TERC continued to meet on a daily basis — transitioning quickly from in-person to Zoom conference — to receive the latest updates and discuss ways of keeping the community safe while providing necessary services.

Core services were identified, public events were canceled, and departments created operations plans to shift services online when possible. Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures and the Education Department developed strategies to deliver food to Elders, children, and families.

Dozens of essential tribal employees continued to work in the face of uncertainty to ensure that Band members remained safe and had the food and other essentials needed to survive.

In late May, Commissioner of Health and Human Services Nicole Anderson signed an order requiring masks in tribal buildings.

As the weeks and months wore on and summer approached, cautious moves were made to reopen businesses — but as more and more Minnesotans became infected, the State and Band were forced to step back efforts to return to normal.

Through it all, the Mille Lacs Band proved ready and able to handle the uncertainty — in large part due to the TERC, a committee that has existed for years, had already responded to weather-related emergencies, and had routinely participated in trainings to prepare for tornadoes, wildfires, food-borne outbreaks, and even pandemics.

Emergency Management Coordinator Monte Fronk has been at the center of those efforts during his decades of service to the Band. Never one to take credit for himself, however, Monte points to the tribal leaders who have seen the importance of emergency management and made necessary investments.

”During the State of the Band speech by the Chief Executive, it was mentioned how tribes were calling her for best practices because they saw how well prepared we were to respond to the pandemic,” said Monte. ”To me, that reflects the 21 years that Band leadership has supported tribal emergency management, including the plans and trainings to help make the Band prepared for all hazards, as well as the community risk reduction efforts they have embraced in the Districts.”