American Indian tribes across Minnesota are establishing special relief funds, increasing food and meals to those in need and taking other new steps to respond to the economic crisis resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

Minnesota’s nearly 60,000 American Indians already face higher rates of poverty and health problems such as diabetes, one of the chronic health conditions that makes people more vulnerable to life-threatening complications associated with COVID-19 infection.

Casinos and gambling — major tribal employers and sources of tribal revenue — are shuttered to flatten the curve of the outbreak.

The state’s 11 tribes — seven Anishinaabe or Ojibwe and four Dakota or Sioux communities — are eligible for federal and state assistance. They each got $1 million from the Legislature’s $330 million emergency coronavirus funding. Even so, they say more help is needed.

“The hardships people are facing are hardships our people have been feeling for centuries,” said Sam Strong, the tribal secretary for the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians. “The disadvantaged populations are being hit hardest by COVID.”

While Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order doesn’t apply to the sovereign nations, tribes passed their own orders and coordinate with one another and state officials daily.

Some Minnesota nonprofits and foundations are also stepping forward to help the tribes in new ways.

On Wednesday, the state’s largest food bank, Second Harvest Heartland, donated two truckloads of fresh fruits and vegetables to the Lower Sioux Indian Community in southern Minnesota in a first-ever partnership. The Lower Sioux is also the first tribe to get money through a new statewide disaster recovery fund to help small businesses, nonprofits and residents.

“These funds coming through will help but it’s like putting on a Band-Aid,” said Robert Larsen, president of the Lower Sioux Community and board chairman of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. “We’re trying to be prepared for if and when it hits our community.”

Lower Sioux’s Jackpot Junction Casino, Redwood County’s largest employer with up to 700 workers, has closed its doors in Morton, Minn., about two hours southwest of the Twin Cities. So nearly 800 families, elders and casino employees from the reservation and surrounding community showed up at the casino parking lot Wednesday for the free farmers market, picking up lettuce, pears, potatoes and other produce donated from farmers and retailers. It was Second Harvest’s first partnership with a tribe on a reservation, distributed via Bishop Whipple Mission/St. Cornelia’s Church because the food bank only delivers to nonprofits.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, food shelves statewide have shifted to operating drive-through pickups of pre-packed boxes of dry and canned goods to adhere to physical distancing rules and adjust to a drop in the number of volunteers.

Second Harvest has distributed 24,000 emergency food boxes so far. But its warehouse was left with 40,000 pounds of produce, so the nonprofit started the traveling farmers market.

“We are problem-solving every minute,” Second Harvest CEO Allison O’Toole said. “We’re looking at new ways of doing our work during this crisis.”

The Lower Sioux also received a $200,000 grant to go to tribal members as direct financial relief. The money came from the Minnesota Disaster Recovery Fund, a $6 million account so far that was set up by the Minnesota Council on Foundations and St. Paul & Minnesota Foundation, with backing from more than 40 foundations. The fund distributed $2 million at the end of March and another $2 million in grants this week to the Lower Sioux and 13 other organizations. While the tribe is the first one to get a grant, other organizations that help homeless and young American Indians have also received money.

Preparing for the pandemic

Tribes are also boosting their work as COVID-19 cases spread to rural Minnesota.

For only the second time in its history, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe shut down Grand Casino March 16, suspending the band’s primary source of revenue and the payments to enrolled tribal members in May, though the band approved stimulus funds to adults. The band, which has 1,500 members, also is delivering food directly to elders and children by bus.

In northern Minnesota, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa also closed down two casinos and is handing out meals to people in need while collecting donated masks and gloves for its two clinics, which have some COVID-19 testing kits. At the White Earth Reservation, a $10,000 grant this month from the Northwest Minnesota Foundation as part of its emergency disaster recovery fund will help with student aid and the tribe’s food shelf.

In Cass Lake, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe laid off some 1,800 people from the tribal government and casinos. During the crisis, volunteers are giving out more than 1,000 food boxes that include wild rice and traditional cedar medicine to elders on the reservation, in Duluth and in Minneapolis. The tribe, which has 9,500 members, also boosted its funding of Cass Lake Area Food Shelf to increase supplies and the number of days a week it’s open.

“Our community members really showed up,” said Leech Lake tribal leader LeRoy Staples Fairbanks III.

At Red Lake, the band started enforcing a curfew to encourage its 13,500 tribal members to stay home and is also increasing food to people in need. Before the crisis, 40% of the tribe faced unemployment, Strong said, and now, with casinos, the main employer, closed, he said that number has likely spiked.

“We’ve been experiencing unemployment and joblessness for decades,” Strong said. “Our lives matter just as much as everybody. We need the same access to health care, the same access to food.”