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Local Tribal Communities Follow the Science, Take Extra Steps to Keep People Safe During Pandemic

Katie Thoresen/WXPR

Some changes within the Sokaogon Chippewa Community in Mole Lake are more obvious that others.

To get into the recently reopened casino you have to get your temperature taken and answer some screening questions.

A giant marquee in town encourages people to get a COVID-19 test at the SCC health clinic if they need it.

Other changes, like newly installed fiber optic cables for better broadband, can’t be seen on the surface.

But all the changes are a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was a lot of work. We made a lot of sacrifices over the last year. However, I believe it was well worth it,” said SCC Public Information Officer Jake Goodin.

Goodin is also on the SCC’s incident command team that was created a year ago to lead the tribe’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were monitoring the situation all the way from the beginning,” said Goodin.

Credit Katie Thoresen/WXPR
A machine scans people's temperatures as they enter they enter the Mole Lake Casino.

Goodin said the motivation for all their actions was to keep the community safe for both tribal and non-tribal members.

“We all live here together, so we got to take care of each other,” said Goodin.

SCC shut down its casino, hotel, and convenience store when the statewide stay at home order went into place in March.

The casino and hotel stayed closed long after the order was lifted.

“There was a lot of concern about having the casino open and being a place that has tourists come from all over the state as well as neighboring states,” said Goodin. “We didn’t want to be a facilitator spreading this virus.”

Restrictions remained fairly loose during the summer but as Labor Day weekend drew near, the tribe became concerned.

Students would be heading back to school, tourists would be coming up for one last big weekend, and nearby Crandon was hosting off road races that drew in thousands of people.

“We basically called it the perfect storm,” said Goodin.

Goodin told me SCC essentially lockdown the community for months, limiting access to certain areas and only allowing those who lived in Mole Lake in the convenience store and only after temperature checks.

“We were concerned about the small tribal community that we have here and also the fact that about a third of them are elderly,” said Goodin.

Those concerns turned out to be valid as Forest County, like the entire state, saw COVID-19 cases skyrocket after Labor Day.

Lac Vieux Desert Response

To the north, just across the border in the Upper Peninsula, Lac Vieux Desert Tribe took a similar approach.

It closely monitored the situation.

Tribal Chairman James Williams Jr. says to this day they’re constantly changing and adjusting as need be.

“Our crew here, our team worked very hard to make sure we did what we had to do to keep people safe and keep them working,” said Williams.

Whenever cases started going up, new restrictions would go in place until they started to go down again. Lac Vieux Desert Health Clinic Director Sadie Valliere said that did the job.

“That seemed to really work. After a few weeks was out of isolation, quarantine and we were able to go back to following the CDC guidelines again,” said Valliere.

Williams said the tribe is getting recognition from Michigan as an example of how it should be done.

“Having the state look to us as an example really means a lot to us,” said Williams.

Though what Williams is most proud of is the tribes support in the schools.

At the start of the last school, WLUC TV reported Lac Vac Vieux Desert donated a fund of up to $600,000 to the Watersmeet School District.

“We saw there was a need for that. The tribe stepped up to help those kids in that school,” said Williams.

The money the tribe got from the CARES Act went to technology upgrades for the district so it could support virtual learning, including each student getting their own Chromebook.

“If we don’t make it easier because of COVID and make it easier for virtual learning, getting them set up with the right equipment and things like that. It’s only going to be worse,” said Williams. “And it has gotten worse. We have some kids that are failing unfortunately because they just don’t grasp the virtual things.”

The tribe also worked with the district and the local Boys and Girls Club to make sure kids were fed.

Both Williams and Goodin made it clear that each tribe took all these steps because they cared, cared what happened to the kids, to their elders, and to surrounding communities.

“Lac Vieux Desert cares. They care for the community. They care for their people and we’ll continue to do that as long as we have the resources to do that,” said Williams.

Focused on Science & Community

Goodin says a couple things drove SCC’s decision-making process, most obvious was keeping the politics out of it.

“We stuck with the science,” said Goodin.

This is also far from the first disease Native American communities have had to contend with.

“Obviously with history of pandemics going through reservations for generations and a lot of the hardships they’ve had with that, the tribe had a special nervousness about the pandemic effecting their communities,” said Goodin.

While the goal was to protect the community as a whole, there was special consideration for tribal elders.

“We value our elders very highly in our Native American communities and wanted to make sure they were protected,” said Valliere.

Credit Wisconsin DHS

Both Sokaogon Chippewa Community and Lac Vieux Dessert took extra care of elders with things like grocery deliveries and prioritizing vaccines for them.

“The elders of the community, they’re like the database of the community. They hold all the tribe’s information, all of their traditions, their culture, all their history, everything,” said Goodin.

Despite all their best efforts, SCC had four tribal members die from COVID, including some elders.

“When they lose an elder, it’s like they’re losing a part of their history,” said Goodin.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services Native Americans have 1.5 times greater deaths from COVID-19 compared to white Wisconsin residents.

While they mourn those losses, SCC is looking forward.

Both tribal communities are focusing on vaccinations. Many of their tribal members have already been able to get vaccinated.

And just like throughout the pandemic, the tribes are making sure everyone in their communities are taken care of.

“We’ve had to change the way we live. We’ve had to not visit people that we love. We’ve had to make personal choices to live a different lifestyle,” said Valliere. “I think with the light at the end of the tunnel, after people are vaccinated to go back to some sort of normalcy is encouraging folks to become vaccinated.”

The SCC Health Clinic has vaccine available by appointment for tribal members, staff, and those who live in Mole Lake.

Lac Vieux Dessert Health Clinic is planning a couple mass vaccination clinics this month that will be open to the general public.