LEECH LAKE, Minn. — COVID-19 loomed large over the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe’s annual State of the Band Address Friday, March 26.

The virtual event served as a reflection of 2020, including the tribe’s response to COVID-19, as well as business development, land restoration, treaty rights, housing issues, environmental protection, the status of Leech Lake gaming and education.

Leech Lake Chairman Faron Jackson Sr. recalled the turbulent year and its effect on the band. He said that news broke of the first COVID-19 case in Minnesota in the middle of last year’s State of the Band Address.

Leech Lake Chairman Faron Jackson Sr. speaks during the virtual Leech Lake State of the Band Address on Friday, March 26, 2021. Facebook screenshot.
Leech Lake Chairman Faron Jackson Sr. speaks during the virtual Leech Lake State of the Band Address on Friday, March 26, 2021. Facebook screenshot.

“Just over a year ago, we held our last State of the Band Address at Northern Lights (Casino) in March of 2020. And at that time, COVID-19 was just starting to gain a foothold in the United States,” Jackson recalled, beginning his address. “Little did we know that would be our last normal event gathering for the foreseeable future. Our emergency manager had the foresight that week to suggest we cancel the event due to the danger of this new virus. At that time, it seemed like a very drastic measure. ...

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“Things progressed very rapidly from that point, with the tribal council declaring a public health emergency just six days later,” he continued. “This forced us to change every aspect of our lives, both at home and work. It was a very challenging and scary time for all of us.”

He asked those in the room and the community watching at home to pause for a moment of silence to honor those who lost their lives in the pandemic.

“Isolation is very hard for us Anishinaabe people, our normal way of life came to a sudden stop. All of our normal routines and things we took for granted drastically changed, as members of our families became infected with the COVID-19 virus,” Jackson said. “I personally want to say ‘Chi Miigwech’ to each and every member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe for doing your part in keeping our families and community safe. We have to continue to be extremely cautious. We cannot let our guard down just yet.”

Leech Lake Health Director Vince Rock said, as of March 26, Leech Lake had administered 7,908 total vaccines. That number includes second doses, so in total, 5,408 people have been vaccinated by Leech Lake so far. Of that total, 2,306 of the doses were given to Native Americans.

The tribe is also giving its vaccines to the non-Native community.

“We did this because we wanted to create a circle of protection because the virus does not discriminate by race,” he said. ”We continue to hand out to surrounding communities and businesses and to protect ourselves. So we have a firewall against the virus, and we feel like we've been very effective against this. Being able to protect those that are closest to us, therefore protects us.”

Rock wrapped up his comments with a simple sentiment, “I want more people to take the vaccine.”

Jackson also pleaded with Leech Lakers to get the vaccine.

“We were proud to receive (some of) the first vaccines in the country (at Indian Health Service) here in Cass Lake and we continue to lead in this area. We are ahead of our friends at the state in much of the country with the progress we have made in our vaccine rollout. These vaccines have been proven to help, and will save lives,” he said. “Myself and my wife have been vaccinated. We tested positive for COVID-19 and felt very fortunate to get through it without any long-lasting effects, (but) we would not want to experience that again. Please give the vaccine some serious thought.”

Kicking off the event were a number of special guests, including remarks from Minnesota’s Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.

“We are filled with hope, as more and more Minnesotans become vaccinated. Each shot is a dose of hope,” Flanagan said. “I can tell you, no one has seemed to vaccinate more folks than Leech Lake. It's really been a tremendous thing to watch. So Chi Miigwech, thanks for being a leader in the vaccine rollout and for getting it done, protecting Native and non-Native folks in this state.”