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Guest View: Tribe looks within for pandemic strength


June 5, 2020

For those of us who have the privilege of serving as elected officials during this difficult time, the burden of uncertainty weighs heavily on our shoulders. As a tribal leader, I am fortunate to be able to share this tremendous responsibility with a cohesive group of leaders that make up our Reservation Business Committee. Together, we find ourselves frequently looking toward our past to find answers for how we want our future to look.

I am sure that countless theses will be written on the perseverance of Native American people during these times, but I think the key to our survival is relatively clear: sticking to what we know. Through genocidal onslaughts and policies of relentless colonization, we have historically drawn strength from our heritage in order to prevail.

Today, in the face of so much change, we once again lean on the constants of our ways of life for guidance.

In the modern age, indigenous communities have strayed from traditional foods, medicines and activities, and consequently, we are plagued by high rates of diabetes and other underlying health challenges that make COVID-19 an existential threat to our people. I take solace in the silver linings I have seen come out of this crisis.

Natural and manmade threats to our existence frequently bring moments of clarity that foster solidarity. As the pandemic ravages communities all around us, we once again stand closest together while being forced apart. Daily, I hear stories of extraordinary selflessness and ingenuity. Many of these positive developments have implications for our friends and family outside of Indian Country, as well.

As with many cultures, elders have always been sources of wisdom connecting the present-day Fond du Lac people to our past. One of the blessings resulting from COVID-19 countermeasures has been that intergenerational interaction has increased. Our need to maximize resources, rural setting and limited reasons to venture far from home have meant that grandparents, parents and children are spending more time together.

This shared experience has made us more aware that our collective identity is especially fragile at this moment due to our adherence to oral traditions. Since this coronavirus disproportionately affects older people, there has been a noticeable increase in the level of appreciation and protectiveness toward our chinshinabe (keepers of our culture). We know that if one of our elders dies, it is as if an entire library has burned to the ground.

I have also noticed a renewed interest in traditional activities. On the Fond du Lac reservation, we have seen people come back to ancient healing practices and foraging for wild foods. In my lifetime, I have never before heard so many tribal members express interest in cedar and sage for spiritual protection. Several times a day I get asked about where to find and harvest wild onions.

When I was a child, we used to eat fiddlehead ferns and, until recently, I had not heard fiddleheads in regular conversation. It is as if a type of cultural renaissance is happening.

The way we conduct business and teach children has changed drastically, too. Many of our employees, both tribal members and nonmembers, are working from home and doing an amazing job. Countless heads of household have risen to the challenge of taking on the primary responsibilities of school teachers, academic counselors, and coaches with phenomenal results. We have even seen overall grades improve.

These temporary measures have the makings of permanent business and education models centered on our culture's values.

I mention these glimmers of hope, not to detract from the horrific effects of the pandemic, but in hopes that we can find meaning in the senselessness of so much suffering. I also hope we look beyond our own difficulties to help people in worse positions than our own.

Hardship has the potential to shake us out of our established routines and awaken dormant talents we never knew we had. I realize it is an oversimplification to say that crises on their own produce strong leaders, communities or interpersonal relationships. Personal and collective advancement is as much a function of preparedness as it is a result of access to resources, like education and peer support.

Challenging times can prompt us to find value where it is often overlooked and under-nurtured. Recent changes in the job market have made it clear that the people society so easily dismisses as "unskilled labor" are actually the essential workers keeping us fed, clothed and sheltered.

The countermeasures to minimize the damages of the pandemic have been difficult to endure. It is reasonable to want to go back to normal. My hope for the future is that our people continue to value the lessons from a time before were merely "normal."


Writer Kevin R. Dupuis Sr. is the tribal chairman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. This column originally ran in the Duluth News Tribune and is used with permission from the band.


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