BAY MILLS TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WJMN) – Indigenous groups across the nation are facing challenges to protect their tribal members during the COVID-19 pandemic. These challenges come in many forms, as one of the tribes in the eastern Upper Peninsula understands.
Bay Mills Indian Community is one of the twelve federally recognized tribes in Michigan. However, with a majority of its members living in the rural Upper Peninsula, this tribal community is facing unique challenges. One of them is finding ways to receive COVID-19 testing kits.
Bryan Newland, tribal chairman of Bay Mills Indian Community, said the tribe has had to gather individual supplies (vials, swabs, viral agents, etc.) for kits from many different services and the open market. Once supplies are received for a kit, staff members put them together themselves. A rapid analyzer for testing samples was also acquired by the tribe.
The tribe has gathered enough supplies to start what is called “surveillance testing”. This means every week, random samples of tribal members and employees are getting tested. Newland said the purpose of this is to help make decisions based on their own data.
“We’ve been using the rapid analyzer for our employees because we obviously don’t want to send them back into the workplace, and putting others at risk including the public. The other part of our test kits, we’ve been sending them out to public labs. So we’ve been mixing and matching and doing the best we can with what we’ve got, which is something Indian people are really good at,” said Newland.
As of May 7, Chippewa County has two confirmed cases and no cases are among the Bay Mills Indian Community. However, they recently lost a fellow tribal member who lived downstate to COVID-19.
Although a sovereign nation, tribes rely on government funding to provide for its tribal members; funding that Newland said they are still waiting to receive.
“Eight billion dollars were to be distributed across 577 tribes. Congress said to the administration that they had to get that fund out within thirty days. State governments got their money, local governments got their money, tribal governments didn’t,” said Newland.
Several weeks ago, about 400 people were put on unpaid leave from tribal facilities, including its casino Bay Mills Resort. This is due to tribal gaming enterprises not qualifying for the original Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES).
During the second round of PPP applications, tribal concerns were listed among those who can apply for PPP. On May 6, Bay Mills Indian Community received $2.7 million to supply its employees with paychecks and health insurance. These funds would cover the payroll costs of casino employees for about two months.
“We employ people who aren’t tribal members. In Chippewa County, two of the three largest employers here are Indian tribes. The decision to spend that money the way the administration did, hurt the U.P. Not just the tribes, but it hurt the U.P., and it made our people less safe,” said Newland.
Newland also stated that the total amount of money set aside for tribal governments have yet to be distributed. He does not expect to receive these funds.
The Anishinaabe people are rooted in their culture and history, which is why preserving and protecting its members and elders are important to them during this time.
“Many of our language speakers are older. The folks who have important cultural teachings that have yet to be passed on are older. And if we lose them, we lose ourselves as Indian People. It’s our responsibility to protect everybody who lives here, and protects all of our people because we’re all connected. That’s tribal life. We depend on one another and we’re going to make it through this together,” said Newland.