Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Community Voices is generously supported by The Minneapolis Foundation; learn why.

Tribes lead on COVID-19

Throughout northern Minnesota, shared identity and respect for elders create a foundation for an effective response.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The following is an editorial from The Timberjay of Ely/Tower/Cook, Minnesota.

Across northern Minnesota, tribal governments have shown remarkable leadership in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. As we’ve reported here, the Bois Forte Band has been out front locally in their efforts to inform, test, and respond to outbreaks of the disease on the reservation.

The Bois Forte have established strict protocols for slowing the spread of the coronavirus, by instituting a mask requirement at their facilities, including Fortune Bay Resort Casino, and they did so long before Gov. Tim Walz issued such an order statewide. They’ve been using temperature checks at the entrance to the Fortune Bay compound to screen out those who are potentially ill and they’ve regularly set up community testing for both band members and the general public.

Article continues after advertisement

And they’ve been aggressive in keeping band members who do test positive quarantined at home. At the same time, they’ve been remarkably transparent about their approach to the disease and about informing the public when band members do test positive.

We wish there were as much transparency off the reservation.

While, as we’ve seen, such an approach does not guarantee success in completely controlling the pandemic, the sense of community and respect for elders that permeates native culture in Minnesota ensures that tribal governments take COVID-19 seriously.

At a time when so much of American society is bitterly divided, we can take a lesson from the common purpose that is so frequently on display on our northern Minnesota reservations. While the reservations certainly have their contentious battles at times, they also have a shared sense of identity that keeps those divisions from becoming self-destructive.

That sense of identity with a community in which we live is, sadly, fading from the broader American culture, as too many of us find our identity in disparate online groups or among Facebook “friends,” many of whom we’ve never met. We have increasingly isolated ourselves in political silos, where we only talk to those with whom we agree and demonize those who don’t share our convictions.

Article continues after advertisement

The loss of community in the broader American society reflects a concerted effort by some of our political and opinion leaders in recent decades to discourage such thinking. While, for much of our history, Americans banded together to create community, in more recent years we have been sold the myth of “rugged individualism,” as if this nation was somehow built by cantankerous mountain men. That, of course, is nonsense, dreamt up in Hollywood, bearing little relation to American history. It was common effort and a focus on the greater good (at least the greater good of those of European ancestry) that built America.Today, consideration of the greater good has all but vanished from America, for any group, in favor of self-interest.

Fortunately, despite the many challenges that life on the reservation still presents, band members are buoyed by a shared identity that keeps a broad majority paddling in the same direction.

Traditional respect for their elders is another reason that native tribes take the COVID-19 pandemic so seriously. This is a disease that has hit the elderly very hard— and native culture does not share the view of some in our nation’s capital who have suggested the deaths of the elderly don’t really matter.

Reverence for the elders is built into native culture and it manifests itself in the case of the pandemic with a sense of shared responsibility to keep elders safe from harm.

In that sense, it should be no surprise that tribal governments have shown leadership in the face of the coronavirus. Native culture, in general, builds a foundation of identity, community, and respect, that makes a coordinated response possible. These are values that the rest of America desperately needs.

Republished with permission.


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)