Boozhoo, Band Members. We have now been living in a global pandemic for one year. COVID-19 has changed so many things about how we interact as a community and how we serve the people as a Band government. Elders who had never heard the word “zoom” before are now experts at zooming, and I’m working toward becoming an expert. Many people who had never used telehealth before now prefer telehealth visits with their doctor over driving long distances to a clinic office. Technology has allowed us to continue functioning as a government, and it is what has allowed many people to remain connected with their family members.
The problem is that during this pandemic where technology has been the only way to receive many services and remain in contact with one another, the lack of technology means that some of us have been left behind, either through very poor internet connections or no internet. Most of us depend on the internet in our daily lives, but all three of our districts are underserved when it comes to broadband internet. After schools shifted to distance-learning from home, many kids struggled to keep up because of poor internet. Millions of people in rural America, including out-state Minnesota, have not been able to receive the same services as those who live in urban communities with strong broadband.
The Band has been advocating for rural broadband for our communities for many years, but it took a pandemic for Congress and the Administration to do something about it. Finally, there are significant federal dollars set aside for bringing technology to rural America through the recent COVID-19 relief bill, the “American Rescue Plan Act” of 2021. Even more assistance for technology will be coming in a new bill that will target supporting infrastructure in America with a heavy focus on rural America and Indian tribes. The Executive Branch and the Corporate Commission are teamed up with other community organizations and federal agencies and working hard on this project, but it will not happen overnight. I just want you to know this is a top priority and I am hoping all our communities might be better served within a year.
Like last month, my April calendar was filled with almost daily consultation sessions with the federal government. I’ve mentioned before that President Biden issued an executive order in January requiring all 67 federal agencies to complete government-to-government consultation with tribal governments by April. These are critical opportunities to tell the federal government what we need. It seemed that most agencies waited until late-March to schedule these, so our priority has been to make sure that every consultation is covered so that our Band has a say in these discussions.
In early April, a three-branch meeting was held where we heard an outstanding presentation from the Judicial Branch about the need for what is called a healing-to-wellness court. This is a very important project that could play a key role in helping families navigating the judicial system to stay together. It would require changes to Band Statutes through our legislative process, but the concept was received very favorably by all three branches at this meeting. I am committed to working with the Legislative and Judicial branches on this matter
On April 6, I was one of about 10 tribal leaders from across the country who were invited to attend a special White House meeting with Gene Sperling, an economist who was appointed by President Biden to serve as the “COVID-19 rescue plan czar.” His job is to oversee distribution of the $1.9 trillion dollars in federal relief money going out to communities. My key points focused on fair treatment for tribes when it comes to distribution of relief money and support for important projects at Mille Lacs.
We had a big victory last month as well, when the Environmental Protection Agency partially rejected the list of “impaired waters” that Minnesota submitted to EPA. The partial rejection was due to the state refusing to list any waters loaded with sulfate where our manoomin grows. Grand Portage is most impacted right now by sulfates in their waters due to mining, and has been leading all Minnesota tribes in coming together to fight this issue. EPA held a consultation with tribes in mid-April and we provided our input about next steps. The point I made during one of our consultations was that manoomin is critical not just for food, but for our ceremonial life — and the state’s refusal to list any polluted waters where manoomin grows is discrimination against manoomin, which is discrimination against American Indian people. I was told this environmental justice argument made an impact in EPA’s decision, which shows how important it is that we are always part of these discussions. Tribes have been fighting this battle for many, many years, and this is the first time EPA has taken action against the State. Grand Portage led the way, and we are all very happy about this victory.
April was full of daily meetings on critical topics. Some of those include attending Band Assembly sessions, a Cabinet meeting with our commissioners, a meeting of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council Executive Board, MCT Finance Committee discussions, meetings with state commissioners, and as I write this column we are closing the month with a regular quarterly meeting of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. I will update Band members about this meeting next week in one of my video updates. Please look for those on the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s Facebook page.
I want to close this month’s column with a message to all who have been impacted by the unexpected loss of loved ones and to those impacted by the tragic boating accident that occurred in April. Our community has experienced so much loss this year. So much grief and loss can feel unbearable at times, but as a community we are all here for you. We have excellent counselors through our Department of Health and Human Services whose job is to help Band members in times of crisis. If you are someone who is wondering whether or not you should call and ask for help, that means you are someone who absolutely does need to call. Support is available at 320-674-4385. Band members, please take good care of yourselves and watch out for one another. Miigwech.