Leaders reflect on pandemic successes and lessons


A recent article by the Brookings Institution, “Indigenous communities demonstrate innovation and strength despite unequal losses during COVID-19,“ highlighted tribal efforts during the pandemic, saying communal values of relationship and connectedness allowed tribes to respond quickly and effectively to the crisis.

Victoria M. O’Keefe, PhD (Cherokee Nation/Seminole Nation) and Melissa L. Walls, PhD (Bois Forte and Couchiching First Nation Anishinaabe) said, “the innovations and impacts of Indigenous leadership during the pandemic provide striking examples of Indigenous peoples paving the way to protect communities and promote wellbeing.“

The Mille Lacs Band has been a case in point, beginning in early March of 2020 with the activation of the Tribal Emergency Response Committee (TERC) and continuing to the present.

Instead of the partisan bickering, denial of science, and resistance to masking witnessed in the broader society, Mille Lacs leaders took the virus seriously from the start, and Band members stayed vigilant, allowing the Band to minimize the spread of the virus and its devastating effects — although the Band, like every community, was not immune to tragedy.

Last month, members of the Tribal Emergency Response Committee were asked to reflect on the past year and list some of their accomplishments and lessons learned.

Legislative Branch

Valerie Harrington is the Chief Communications Officer for the Legislative Branch of the Mille Lacs Band’s tribal government. She pointed to the Band Assembly’s quick passage of Title 27 — Emergency Management, which provided the legal authority for the Chief Executive to declare a State of Emergency and issue a stay-at-home order.

Band Assembly also started meeting through conference call to protect themselves and their families while continuing to conduct essential business. “The Elected Officials adapted extremely quickly to the changes of the meeting process,“ said Val. “They were willing to support the TERC in any way while ensuring their districts’ needs were their top priority.“

Val gave credit to Parliamentarian Darcie Big Bear, who also adapted to new processes, and Brianna Boyd, whom she called “the backbone of Legislative.“

“Darcie’s work during Band Assembly and behind the scenes is vital to the acts of Legislation, and Brianna is always thinking of how to inform our Band members and has made critical office decisions that were often times very difficult.“

Val also emphasized the role of Legislative Legal Counsel and Staff Attorneys, who made sure the process of legislation continued, including statute revisions and public comment and hearings.

“I feel like the Legislative Team has stepped up, and the ultimate goal of ensuring the best interest of the Tribe and Band Members continues to be priority,“ Val concluded.

Although Val didn’t highlight her own role, she initiated Legislative Weekly Updates to ensure Band members were made aware of Legislative business.

Health and Human Services

Nicole Anderson, Commissioner of Health and Human Services, was at the center of the Band’s response to COVID-19 — overseeing new activities like testing and vaccination, transitioning her department to telehealth, ensuring the food security of Band members, and working with federal, state, and local agencies to stay up to date on the latest science — all while moving her large staff into a new building.

In addition, the dental team remained fully functional during the pandemic with the leadership of Dr. Gupta, and the Circle of Health staff made a concerted effort to get more Band members than ever insured during the midst of the global pandemic.

Nicole gave special thanks to Public Health Director Lisa Blahosky-Olivarez and Clinic Manager Jenna Kuduk. “Both ladies have been at the forefront of the HHS pandemic response, from working testing sites to vaccine clinics and answering their phones during all hours. They work in a great partnership and have been integral to the COVID-19 response.“

Nicole pointed to the Chief Executive’s video updates as an essential source of information for Band members during the pandemic.

She emphasizes that the pandemic is not over, and Band members need to remain vigilant in the face of a third surge. “You have the power to protect yourself by following the COVID-19 guidelines,“ said Nicole. “Be aware of your surroundings, wash the hands, wear the mask, get vaccinated if you would like, and try to limit exposure.“


Nay Ah Shing Assistant Principal Byron Ninham praised the school’s staff for implementing measures at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year following the guidance of the CDC and the Minnesota Department of Health. The measures included temperature checks in all buildings, alongside additional screening questions for admittance into the school building, mask wearing at all times, and partitions on desks, within front entrances, and in the nutrition serving areas.

Each building was also equipped with dual language signage (Ojibwemowin-English), sanitizing stations in each classroom, and sanitizing caddies for each instructor.

“All staff had an understanding that coming into this year it would be unlike any other, and everyone stepped up to meet the demands of in-person instruction as well as for our distance learning students,“ said Byron.

The school had a 1-to-1 student-to-device ratio prior to 2019-20, and they adjusted with unlimited 5G hot spots for all students without reliable internet access. “We also were able to meet the needs of students as they changed with hard copy educational materials throughout the school year,“ said Byron.

All positive COVID-19 cases are reported locally as well as to the BIE COVID-19 team. Nay Ah Shing Schools also has a plan to localize a spread or close contact and to notify all families and students appropriately.

Byron said the Nay Ah Shing School nurse has been an amazing resource, coordinating the three school buildings and staying well versed in the changing guidance and suggestions from regional and statewide partners. “She also coordinated alongside the Band’s HHS to ensure vaccinations that were available to priority level 1B employees were met and offered,“ said Byron. “Nay Ah Shing administrators also coordinated with the state of Minnesota with vaccine allocations for staff that were in the high-risk population.“

The Transportation Department has also done an amazing job, Byron said. “Each day our bus drivers, alongside paraprofessional staff, were delivering meals to distant learners and also delivering hard copy instructional materials, in addition to morning and afternoon routes. These employees have adjusted to the demands of this school year admirably.“
Former Commissioner of Education Joycelyn Shingobe, who passed away earlier this year, was an important liaison with tribal government, Byron said.

Byron summarized the lessons he’s learned in responding to the pandemic: “If we work towards a common goal while respecting the guidance that is given to our leadership from our statewide partners, we can accomplish a lot. The world has gotten smaller through this pandemic with the ability to video conference and work remotely. We all need to do our part in these times especially.“

Principal Lehtitia Weiss added, “We all have worked so hard this past year to create an environment that is both safe for our students and staff yet inviting and fun. While it has been difficult to keep the momentum going, staff continue to amaze me with their commitment and dedication to our students.“

Public Safety

Emergency Management Coordinator Monte Fronk was as well prepared as anyone for a crisis, having devoted his career to ensuring that the Band had emergency procedures in place.

Monte, who works out of the Tribal Police Department, said, “Throughout the pandemic, calls for service were never compromised no matter what the need of our community members.“

He and his colleagues participated in federal, state, regional, and local calls in the beginning of the pandemic and shared information internally with the other TERC members.

They established safety protocols for calls for service and gained access to equipment and Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) at no cost from federal agencies.

Monte also praised the communications efforts of the Band — in particular, Public Relations Director Vivian LaMoore. “The Mille Lacs Band has the only certified Tribal Public Information Officer (PIO) of the 11 Tribal Nations in Minnesota, which gives the Tribal PIO the tools to get the right information out, at the right time, and to the right people,“ said Monte. “This led to an extensive plan to get information out to all of all districts and the urban area in the right platform that would appeal to Band members. In this case it was social media, which led to a noted reduction in rumors or misinformation that other Tribes had to deal with and couldn’t recover from.“

Monte said the Band has learned important lessons about maintaining government operations and services to Band members in all districts and the urban area with minimal staffing — known as “continuity of operations“ in Emergency Management circles.

Monte also cited the creation of the Tribal Emergency Management Act, which formally recognizes Tribal Emergency Management and the TERC in Band Statute, along with their duties and responsibilities during a crisis.


When Grand Casinos made the difficult decision to close on March 15, they were the first tribal casinos in the state to do so — and others quickly followed suit.

During the closure, however, Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures jumped in early on to ensure food security for Elders and school-age children. Beth Gruber, Director of Planning and Community Engagement for Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures, said, “Our nimble team was able to shift gears quickly and begin a three-prong approach. First, we immediately deployed a daily food program for Nay Ah Shing Schools, as well as partnered with other local schools to assist with supplies and bottled water.
The second initiative was to provide a bi-monthly supply of food to Elders, which kept Elders out of harm’s way and allowed a checkpoint for the Public Health team to have with Elders. Our final prong was producing quarantine packs for families who may have needed a 14-day supply of food and products.“

Beth also highlighted the work of Public Health Director Lisa Blahosky-Olivarez. “Lisa was instrumental in our work,“ said Beth. “She always picked up the call and was on the front lines each time we did a distribution. Lisa leads by example and continues to be my go-to.“