Members of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa who test positive for COVID-19 and fail to abide by a new quarantine order now run the risk of being banished from the reservation or losing tribal rights for up to five years.
Bois Forte Chairwoman Cathy Chavers last Thursday reported the first known positive case of the new coronavirus on the reservation in northeast Minnesota.
The following day, Chavers took to the tribal government’s YouTube channel to reiterate that the case involves a female band member in Vermilion, the smallest of three sectors of the reservation, just west of Tower in St. Louis County. The chairwoman, who has since been in contact with the Minnesota Health Department, noted that “the individual is quarantined.”
Still, there has been “some concerns” over the quarantine of the individual and their family.
In response, the Bois Forte Reservation Tribal Council passed a “Quarantine Order” for tribal and non-tribal members on the reservation who “tested positive for COVID, is exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, or has come into close contact with another person who is confirmed or suspected of carrying COVID-19.” The order would end after 14 days or once a medical health professional at the tribal clinic determines that person “no longer poses a risk of becoming ill or spreading the disease to others.”
During her recorded address, Chavers said “the resolution will state that any band member that knowingly and willfully does not abide by the quarantine order will lose all tribal rights, which will include hunting, fishing, ricing, gathering, leasing, per capita and COVID dollars that are coming available for a period of two years.” The resolution, posted on the tribal government’s website, describes how a first violation of the order can result in tribal court-imposed civil penalties, including “eligibility for housing services” and a $1,000 fine. Subsequent violations include the “suspension” or “revocation” of tribal privileges and benefits up to five years, in addition to a $2,000 fine.
The toughest penalty involves the potential for “temporary or permanent banishment from the reservation.”
“We want people to know that this is a serious issue,” Chavers said. “If you have to quarantine you need to please stay in quarantine.” She suggested that anyone needing food or care when in quarantine should call the tribal government office. “We want our communities to stay safe,” she added. “We have a lot of elders and a lot of high-risk population out there. That in the event individuals leave their quarantine residence it poses a serious threat to all the members of our reservation.”
People experiencing a medical or safety emergency will not be penalized.
Chavers asked that members call 911 if they “have concerns with regards to individuals out leaving their homes with regards to the quarantine.”
Law enforcement have the authority “to enforce the provisions of a Quarantine Order and cite any person found to be in violation,” the resolution reads. Peace officers will forward all citations to the tribal council for review.
Those penalized will have the right “to appeal any civil penalty” within 10 days. But the tribal council disposition on an appeal will be final and “not subject to review by any forum, including the Bois Forte Tribal Court.”
COVID-19 pandemic on the Bois Forte Reservation
The Bois Forte Band — one of 11 tribal nations in Minnesota - is sovereign and therefore does not have an obligation to follow state directives. Still, the band has mostly mirrored the state’s policies regarding COVID-19 and, in some instances, the tribal leaders have imposed stricter rules to protect their community.
On March 13, Gov. Tim Walz declared a peacetime emergency for the 5.6 million Minnesotans. Four days later, on March 17, the Bois Forte Tribal Council declared their own emergency concerning 3,500 enrolled members of which about 700 reside on the reservation. The band closed two wellness centers, an elementary school in Nett Lake. That same day, the St. Louis County Board confirmed its first cases of the coronavirus and declared a state of emergency. The following day, on March 18, the band moved to shut down the Fortune Bay Resort Casino, its largest business employing about 500 Native and non-Native staff. In doing so, the Bois Forte joined a number of tribal nations in closing casinos: the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in Hinckley, the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe in Carlton and Duluth and both the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and the Prairie Island Indian Community near Minneapolis.
When Minnesota court systems began to cut staff hours and focus on high priority cases, the Bois Forte Band stopped all court proceedings in Nett Lake. Tribal leaders also imposed a travel ban to restrict tribal government employees from driving the 125 miles south to Duluth. “If you go to Duluth after 11 o’clock today you will be required to self-quarantine for two weeks,” Chavers said at the time.
On March 25, about an hour after Walz issued a “stay at home” order for Minnesotans, the Bois Forte Band asked members to abide by their new “Stay Safe, Stay Home” and postponed tribal elections in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus on the reservation.
By early April, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention was considering whether to expand its guidelines on who should wear masks after announcing that up to 25 percent of people infected with the coronavirus may not show symptoms. The agency had been saying that people only need to wear masks if they are feeling sick, but the information prompted discussions within the White House to act on the matter. At the time, Walz told Minnesotans that there was not yet a definitive answer to whether all people should wear masks. But the Bois Forte Band, taking stock in the growing number of confirmed cases statewide and in the three surrounding counties, as well as in Fort Frances, Ontario, decided for itself that all tribal government workers on the reservation would begin wearing masks if they went out into the community.
Later that month, the Bois Forte Nett Lake Health Clinic got word that it would receive a COVID-19 analyzer for testing from the Indian Health Services. The band eventually received three testing kits per week, which includes 24 tests in each kit for anyone who has symptoms of the virus. Such testing capabilities are being used on the Leech Lake Band Reservation through a partnership with the Indian Health Service and Mayo Clinic to administer tests on the reservation. The Bois Forte Band has since reached out to the University of Minnesota in attempts to strengthen testing capabilities.
Then several days after the state reopened golf courses, the Bois Forte Band announced that the band would reopen The Wilderness golf course at Fortune Bay on May 8.
In mid-May, Walz announced he would let his stay-at-home order expire and signed a separate executive order to allow stores to reopen at reduced capacities while keeping in place restrictions on bars, restaurants, hair salons and other establishments. He noted that businesses could open on June 1 if they meet safe opening plans in accordance with state guidelines. That day, the Bois Forte Band again made references to reopening Fortune Bay during press conferences that appeared to align with the governor’s suggestion.
Fortune Bay Resort Casino has since reopened. The band created “a thorough cleaning and disinfectant plan” which requires all staff to get temperature screenings before coming into the business about 60 miles north of Hibbing. Anyone with a temperature at 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher will be asked to leave the property and seek medical attention. Everyone who enters the business is being asked to practice social distancing and stand at least 6 feet apart. All are required to wear masks.
In recent weeks, tribal leaders cautioned enrolled members that the coronavirus was nearing the boundaries of the reservation - with confirmed cases in Ely, Hibbing and Tower - and asked them to continue practicing social distancing while the band reopened the Fortune Bay and outdoor amenities bound to draw in outsiders to the nearby lakes.
Despite the precautions, Chavers has noted that she heard “concerns” from tribal members over the reopening of the business during a time in which the state has been reporting a spike in COVID-19 cases with an expected peak in July. “If you are scared, please don’t come,” Chavers told members. “Stay home and be safe.”
Imposing curfew, quarantine penalties
The people of the Bois Forte Band had endured the coronavirus pandemic with no cases and isolated in the deep forests of northeast Minnesota. The newly confirmed case on the reservation has caused tribal leaders to take unprecedented measures to ensure the safety of their community, where many members suffer from underlying health conditions at higher rates per capita than white neighbors who reside in the surrounding St. Louis, Itasca and Koochiching counties.
Minnesota and other states have already imposed coronavirus-related orders that carry penalties.
A total of 269 cases have been charged since March for violating Walz’s now-expired stay at home order, according to the State Court Administrator’s Office. The charge carried a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
This week, the states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut imposed a 14-day quarantine order on all visitors. In New York, a first offense could result in a $1,000 fine and subsequent offenses could raise that figure to $10,000.
In that vein, tribal nations across the country have been imposing stricter measures than states.
Similar curfew and quarantine orders and penalties have been imposed by the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in North Dakota, for examples.
The Oglala Sioux banished a non-tribal member with coronavirus and her husband from the Pine Ridge Reservation. The couple traveled to Denver, where she became infected before returning to the reservation. “For an individual to leave the reservation going to one of the major hot spots where this virus is and then come back is just uncalled for,” President Julian Bear Runner said, according to the Associated Press.
Data from the American Public Media shows that the mortality rate among Indigenous Americans is far greater than whites. In New Mexico, which borders Navajo Nation, Native Americans make up 60 percent of the deaths due to the coronavirus, despite representing only 9 percent of the population. The Navajo Nation had put up checkpoints and imposed a curfew that threatens vilators with 30 days in jail or a $1,000 fine. Last week, the tribe reinforced lockdowns while cases in Arizona and Utah continue to increase.
In Minnesota, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe - whose reservation is located about 140 miles southwest of the Bois Forte tribal government center - asked people who came into contact with the infected individual to self-quarantine for 14 days. The Red Lake Tribal Council and Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe had imposed a curfew and shelter-in-place order, for which violators would receive a citation from tribal police departments. It remains uncertain whether tribal nations in the state have imposed quarantine orders.
As of Thursday, the United States had about 2.3 million cases of the coronavirus and 121,000 deaths, according to the CDC. The federal Indian Health Services showed 17,904 positive cases on reservations across the country.
In Minnesota, the state Health Department reported 34,123 cases of the coronavirus and 1,406 related deaths. About 3,943 people required hospitalization. At least 333 people tested positive for COVID-19 in the IHS area of Bemidji.
Cases in counties surrounding the Bois Forte Reservation plateaued then jumped slightly in recent weeks, but tribal leaders remain wary since they anticipate the summer will attract more tourists to their area in the upcoming months.
As of Thursday, St. Louis County reported 151 people have tested positive for the coronavirus and 14 individuals have died as a result of the virus, according to the state Health Department. Itasca reported 63 cases and 12 deaths, while Koochiching remained at nine cases and zero deaths.