/ Articles / LdF Tribe leading coronavirus fight with collaboration

LdF Tribe leading coronavirus fight with collaboration

No. 1 Priority: safety and security of all who live, work and visit Reservation


April 19, 2020 by David Poupart


The Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians walk in two worlds. Tribal members — both U.S. citizens and members of their own Sovereign Nation — cherish native traditions. But love of country is equally apparent in many ways. Most evident is the percentage of Tribal members who generation after generation proudly serve in the U.S. military. 

At times these worlds collide. Treaty Rights — agreed upon in the 1800s in exchange for Tribes ceding millions of acres of land to the U.S. government — as well as culture and history, sometimes, work one world against the other. 

Even though Tribal members remain firmly planted in both worlds, confronting coronavirus requires respect for both worlds and what each offers Tribal members. The Tribe is working on multiple fronts to fight the coronavirus to keep safe all who live, work and visit Lac du Flambeau.

“This crisis knows no boundaries and doesn’t discriminate,” LDF Tribal president Joseph Wildcat, Sr. said. “We help those in need. We care for the sick and frail. We employee more than any other in the region. We do what we can to make life better now and for future generations. During this public health emergency, I’m seeing our values and commitment to one another coming out strong.” 

Tribal Council and its Emergency Response Team have worked across the Tribal enterprise as well as with federal, state and local governing bodies and agencies to battle the coronavirus. The virus has not arrived on the Reservation yet. But Tribal leaders, departments, programs, businesses, as well as volunteers are doing everything possible to prevent the arrival and spread of the virus.

Early on, medical telephone screening was set up for Peter Christensen Health Center staff to determine if a patient may be at risk. This and other measures were quickly implemented to reduce potential exposure to staff and patients alike. To date, 13 tests have been administered with all coming back from the lab negative for coronavirus. 

“Since receiving the last of 13 tests back, there have been no new tests performed, not out of lack of materials, but out of no patients fitting test parameters,” Peter Christensen Health Center interim medical director Dr. Steven Miszkiewicz said. “This is great news, and, in my opinion, directly due to mitigation efforts by Tribal Council at the very early onset of this public health emergency.”

The coronavirus pandemic evolves daily if not hourly. And the Tribe’s safety and security response has adapted and evolved to meet the ever-changing challenge.  

“When confronting the unknown, there’s often criticism for taking too much action that impacts every-day life during a crisis and criticism afterward for not doing enough,” Wildcat said. “As a Tribal Council, we decided to act quickly to get out front of this public health emergency, declaring a State-of-Emergency followed by a Shelter-At-Home Declaration.”

As a governing body, Tribal Council monitors the situation and consults with experts. Incident Command Team meetings kick off each morning followed by a blizzard of emails and inquiries across Tribal departments and programs. Communications with local, state and fed

eral agencies to coordinate pandemic responses ensures everyone involved is working morning, noon, and night.  

“The Tribe is moving quickly to head off this coronavirus, and we are in full support of the Shelter-at-Home declaration to help stop this virus,” LDF town board chair Matt Gaulke said. “The Shelter-at-Home declaration is a good idea by Tribal Leadership.” 

Because coronavirus can be transferred by those not showing symptoms, many who visit, live, and work in Lac du Flambeau are sacrificing some conveniences of daily life now. 

“This is not easy, but it is necessary to come out the other side of this emergency and get back to normal life,” Dr. Miszkiewicz said. “The more we know, the more we follow health guidelines — without panicking — the better we will navigate this emergency together.”

As of the writing of this article, the Tribe continues to prepare for the coronavirus arriving eventually. Thus far efforts to keep it away are working. Should it arrive in Lac du Flambeau, there’s concern by both Tribal, town and regional governments about whether area health systems will collapse under the weight of large numbers of hospitalizations.

“We have limited medical resources regionally and if we have an influx of people coming from hotspots outside of Lac du Flambeau to their second homes in the area, it could have a devastating effect,” Wildcat and Gaulke said. “We’ve respectfully asked people outside the community to stay home until this is over for everyone’s safety.”

And while Tribal Public Health teams and health care clinicians use modern medicine to keep the community healthy and safe, traditional native medicines also are provided by Tribal members separately from the health center.   

Cedar, chaga, swamp tea and sage are native methods to maintaining health and well-being. Tribal member Joe Graveen has been gathering these items for distribution to Tribal Elders and others who may not be able to do it themselves. But even these are in short supply. 

The public health emergency is placing stress on infrastructure. And the fallout from the emergency measures taken to prevent or slow the coronavirus from reaching the Reservation likely will linger for the foreseeable future. 

One of the many items stressed beyond capacity are protective medical masks. Now that the Centers for Disease Control has recommended more people wear masks, even if hand-crafted, Tribal members have volunteered to answer the call to sew protective masks for the community.

“Throughout our history we’ve hand-crafted necessities as well as arts and crafts that have become world-renowned,” Tribal Council member Melissa Doud said. “This public health emergency is an opportunity to apply these skills to medical mask-making to help meet a vital need for protecting people from the coronavirus.” 

The most vulnerable in any community are at most risk during public health emergencies. Providing support to those in need, at times, requires collaborating with competitors. Such is the case in the competitive grocery business. 

Tribal Purchasing Department’s Cheryl Hraban and Scott Chapman, Jr., worked with Trig’s in Minocqua to purchase essentials for the Tribal Food Bank. This allowed the LDF Country Market to retain its supply of groceries, produce, meats and other necessities for shoppers while the Tribe ensured those in need were also cared for at the Tribal Food Bank. 

“This was a collaborative effort to help those in need,” Hraban said. “We’ve never seen a situation that has stretched resources so thin for so many, regardless of where you live.” 

Trig’s assembled all the items on a pallet, Chapman said, loaded it on our truck, donated 2,000 bags for food kit assembly by the Food Bank, and provided a 10% discount to the Tribe at purchase. Trig’s offered to fill our order three times per week, shrink wrap the order, and load it on a truck to limit the contact between our community members and the outside store location.

“Without question, we in the grocery business compete for customers,” LDF Country Market general manager George Carufel said. “In times of crisis, however, we all are finding more creative ways to support the greater good.”  


Supporting employees in crisis

As the region’s largest employer of both natives and non-natives, the Tribe moved quickly in the opening days of the pandemic. Tribal Council implemented emergency response procedures. The Incident Command Team was called to duty. Policies were adjusted or created across multiple Tribal business enterprises, such as Simpsons Electric, Lake of the Torches Resort and Casino, LDF Business Development Corporation, and its business units LDF Construction, LDF Country Market and LDF Holdings. 

“It remains all-hands-on-deck,” Tribal human resources director Edmund Peterson said. “Every day we face a new challenge or twist in how we work to ensure our employees are provided the support they need to take care of themselves and their families. Nothing is perfect, but we are working to do what we can to stay out front of this crisis.” 

The U.S. Congress passing the CARES Act seemed like it would provide a back-stop for businesses through its Payroll Protection Program (PPP). It’s unclear, however, whether Tribal casinos will be covered by the PPP. This lack of clarity 

may jeopardize that back-stop for one of the area’s largest employers of natives and non-natives: Lake of the Torches Resort and Casino.  

“We are hopeful, after further review, the CARES Act will include Indian Casinos in the Payroll Protect Program,” Wildcat said. “There are hundreds of federally recognized tribes across the United States that are the main employer in their region. Excluding Indian Casinos certainly will impact thousands of Native and non-Native employees and their ability to provide for their families.”     


Governing during pandemic

LDF Tribal Council moved to establish governance in a new normal of pandemic. Safety and security of those who visit, work and live in Lac du Flambeau is job No. 1. But this is an historic pandemic the likes most have not experienced. Challenges remain to balance safety with the ability to continue to serve those in need of Tribal government services.

“We’ve moved quickly to update policies and programs to help our people weather this emergency,” Tribal President Wildcat said. “Health and security mean many things to different people. Some think of physical, emotional and spiritual health. Others think of financial, employment and daily life security. We’re working on all.”

Tribes do not have a traditional tax base to generate government revenue. Many think any tribe with a casino sits on top a never-ending pile of cash. 

Some tribes are better off than others. But most people fail to realize casino revenue supports much of the Tribe’s government services. Many of those services, like roads, bridges, public safety, sewer and water, fish restocking — even for some off-reservation lakes — and others are enjoyed by Tribal members and non-members alike.  

When considering that casino revenue makes possible all the Tribal services typically associated with a national government, the revenue stream quickly reaches its limits. Economic support, homeless shelters, land management, housing, medical and dental, education, cultural entities and just about every other service you would associate with governing is provided by the Tribe. 

“I’m proud of our Tribe and all who work with us for banding together to do what we must for the greater good of our community,” Wildcat said. “Together, we will get through this difficult and challenging time. Miigwech (thank you) to all!”


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