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White Earth votes to create dedicated fund for families’ funeral expenses

Exactly how much tribal members could receive is still undecided. The final amount and other policy specifics will need to be solidified before the resolution goes into effect on Oct. 1.

spirit house
Courtesy of Zhoongwewegabo
A spirit house, or jiibegamig, that Zhoongwewegabo built to mark his son's grave. Joseph BigBear, also known as Joey, was Midewiwin, or a member of the Grand Medicine Society.
Minnesota’s largest Native American tribe, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, voted last week to dedicate $1 million toward helping members pay for family funerals. 

Currently, tribal members are eligible for $400 from the tribal council to help cover funeral costs. The newly established fund will “substantially increase” that amount, according to an announcement made Aug. 1. 

However, exactly how much tribal members could receive is still undecided. The final amount and other policy specifics will need to be solidified before the resolution goes into effect on Oct. 1, which is when the tribe’s budget is approved. 

The decision could benefit at least 12,000 band members in the state, said Ray Auginaush, White Earth’s District I council member and one of two people who voted on the measure.

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The tribe’s reservation, the largest by land area, is located in northwestern Minnesota.

While much of the policy has yet to be set in stone, the council is interested in placing the $1 million into its own account to accrue interest rather than drawing money as needed from the tribe’s general fund. “We want to make sure that those dollars … those funds are protected,” said Alan Roy, White Earth’s secretary and treasurer.

Policy in progress

The tribal council has long been concerned with assisting band members and their families with burgeoning funeral costs, Auginaush said.

“It’s been brought up in years past by different councils; why they didn’t act on it I don’t really know. But we see it as an opportunity for our people because when [we] lose our loved ones, you know, it’s hard, it’s a difficult thing and the main thing is money,” Auginaush said. “It slows a lot of people up.”

The current council has yet to draw any hard parameters around eligibility, so government staff have been tasked with answering questions like: How much will families get? How will the fund be managed? Will the money go entirely to the family or funeral home, or will it be split between the two? And what services will be covered? Auginaush said constituent feedback will be welcome during this process. 

The tribe has more than 19,000 members, some who live out of state, who are eligible to request a donation from the council to help cover funeral costs. That could change if the council decides to limit donations to in-state members only.

The council receives up to 150 calls a year (costing the council approximately $60,000) for funeral assistance. “There’s a lot of need there. And so we do meet the demand,” Roy said. 

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Katie Danielson, a White Earth member who lives on the Fond du Lac reservation near Cloquet, heard there might be some government assistance available from White Earth when her mother passed away in 2008. After Danielson submitted the death certificate, White Earth issued her family a $400 check. Overall, Danielson said the funeral cost around $6,000 to $7,000. 

“We didn’t think that it should’ve been more or whatever; we just were thankful for anything we were able to receive,” Danielson said. “I feel like when people complain that they should get more, ‘x’ more dollars for this and ‘x’ amount of dollars for that, I don’t feel that’s the role that the tribe has.”

‘Wouldn’t cover the cost of a headstone’

“Four hundred dollars doesn’t go a long way,” Auginaush acknowledges. “That’s like taking a peanut and throwing it in a 5-gallon bucket.” 

On average, tribal members spend about $5,000 to $6,000 for a funeral, said Roy, the tribe’s secretary and treasurer. 

When the tribe helped Zhoongwewegabo, a retiree living in Oxford Township, pay for his son Joe BigBear’s funeral in 2016, he thought “OK, great, something.” But then there was a hall to rent, funeral services, the headstone and laying the body in the ground. All in all, the funeral cost $11,000.

“What White Earth was paying would not even cover the cost of a headstone …  it doesn’t go very far for when you got funeral expenses,” Zhoongwewegabo said. “It took me three years to pay off Joe’s, and we got it paid off.” 

Cremation, although generally cheaper than a burial, was not an option for Joe’s funeral. 

“I thought it was nice they [White Earth] would increase [the funeral fund] for people. I know some relatives literally that had to be cremated because they could not afford burial costs,” Zhoongwewegabo said. “And to me, that’s not right. In our way, in the Ojibwe way, we don’t cremate our relatives; that’s not our way of burial.”

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The counties where many tribal members live (Mahnomen, Becker and Clearwater) also provide funeral assistance. But some counties will pay only for a cremation or burial, putting a strain on low-income families who would like a traditional funeral, said Kelly Woltjer, co-owner of Anderson Family Funeral Homes, whose Mahnomen location is based on the White Earth Reservation.

“Everything is helpful. But we do have families that are very much struggling to be able to have some type of service and viewing [of the body]. And the $400 doesn’t cover that,” Woltjer said.

Families will ask relatives, neighbors, use other benefits, or even start a GoFundMe campaign to come up with the additional $1,000 to $2,000 needed “to be able to meet the minimum religious and cultural beliefs” of most residents from the White Earth Reservation, she added.

The funeral home has even reduced prices up to $4,000 for 40 percent of its clients, or about 30 families, to help them afford some of their desired services.

“If we serve every family in that situation on the White Earth Reservation, we would have to close our doors; we wouldn’t be able to pay taxes and salaries and all of the expenses. So we try to meet the needs, between what the county will pay and what the families want.”

Assistance amounts vary

Many other Ojibwe tribes in the state provide some kind of funeral assistance to band members. 

The family of Zhoongwewegabo’s niece received $7,000 from the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe for her funeral.“And I said, Wow, that’s great. That helps a lot. Because you know, that’s enough.”

The tribe, located in east central Minnesota, has about 4,459 members living on the reservation and on the tribe’s trust land, according to the Census bureau. 

The tribe offers band members a $500 stipend, and pays up to $8,700 to the funeral home to cover pricier expenses. Since October, the tribe has given out 46 of these stipends, according to Katy Radunz, finance officer at the Mille Lacs Office of Management and Budget. 

Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, whose reservation is just east of White Earth, provides financial assistance based on the age of the deceased: from $1,500 for a “pre-life” funeral, such as a stillborn child, to $5,000 for an adult funeral. The tribe also donates $500 to the band member’s family. 

“All we’re trying to do is give our people a little ease of mind, and hopefully bring them a little closer at a time when they’re supposed to be, instead of worrying about money,” Auginaush said.