Note: This article is part of the project: "Indigenous Impacts: How Native American communities are responding to COVID-19." We invite you to view the entire project here.
ST. PAUL — For Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, deciding how the state takes on the coronavirus is deeply personal.
Flanagan is the highest-ranking Indigenous woman in statewide office and she has been at the helm of the state’s coronavirus response along with Gov. Tim Walz since the illness took hold in the United States early this year.
Almost from the start, the pandemic has taken a personal toll for Flanagan, as her brother Ron Golden perished from the disease in March. The impact of his death shaped her views on the illness and how the state ought to address it.
A member of the White Earth Nation and mother of a 7-year-old daughter, Flanagan said her background has also helped her better advocate for Indigenous communities around the state and empathize with parents deciding whether to send their kids back for in-person schooling this year.
The Forum News Service sat down with Flanagan for a virtual interview in August as part of a special series highlighting the impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous communities and the roles of Indigenous leaders in navigating the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on Black and Indigenous Minnesotans, with both populations reporting higher rates of hospitalizations and deaths from the illness than white Minnesotans.
Flanagan said that even before the illness reached Minnesota, the Walz-Flanagan Administration prioritized and equitable response. They reached out to find media outlets or community messengers that could get out into Indigenous communities and communities of color and talked to them about how to explain the gravity of COVID-19 and how people could prevent it.
She said the response from the 11 Native American nations that share geographic boundaries with Minnesota has been good so far and she felt bringing her background to the role helped get $11 million in state funding to the tribes to combat COVID-19.
COVID-19 takes a personal toll
Early in the pandemic, the gravity of its impact became clear for Flanagan after her older brother became sickened with COVID-19 and died after he was hospitalized and put on a ventilator.
Weeks earlier, Ron Golden, Flanagan’s brother was diagnosed with cancer in Tennessee.
“Having that experience so early on in the pandemic I think made it very real for me and I think it’s also part of the frustration that I have with people who may politically disagree with us about something like mask-wearing,” Flanagan said. “I don’t care if you are a very conservative Republican who is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from me politically, I don’t want you to go through what I did.”
“The gravity of this hit me right away and I want to just keep sharing with people this isn’t a joke.”
Flanagan didn’t get to see Golden before he died and her family, like many who’ve experienced a COVID-19 death, has yet to hold a memorial in his honor or scatter his ashes. He’d hoped to have his ashes scattered on the White Earth reservation near his father.
Soon after his passing, Flanagan shared her experience publicly and she said she was surprised at the negative responses her story drew on social media, with many raising doubts about the COVID-19 factoring into Golden’s death.
“Just the kind of cruelty of it is just stunning to me, I don’t recognize it,” she said. “I don’t understand the cruelty of this moment that we’re in.”
Divides around pandemic response have fueled schisms in the state Legislature. And the longest-standing feud revolves around Walz’s decision to keep extending the state’s peacetime emergency to combat COVID-19. Republicans who control the Senate have said the emergency is over and lawmakers should have a stronger role in deciding what the state does next.
As Walz and Flanagan have brought dozens of executive orders changing life in Minnesota to limit the spread of the disease, Republicans have often put up resistance, saying moves to shut down schools, businesses and churches or require masks in public spaces go too far.
Flanagan said the changes may be difficult but they’re worth it to help others avoid the pain she and her family have experienced.
A push for equity in state's coronavirus response
As the lieutenant governor and as an Indigenous woman, Flanagan said she has also aimed to build equity and inclusion into the state’s plans to battle COVID-19. And that has spilled over to other issues as a result.
Early this year, lawmakers greenlighted $11 million for tribes in Minnesota, $1 million to go to each, and the state started working with individual tribal nations to help with their COVID-19 response.
“I was really glad that the Legislature worked with us to do that and, to be candid, I was surprised that we were able to move that so quickly and I’m grateful for it,” Flanagan said.
The state also set up the Community Resiliency and Recovery Work Group, which Flanagan leads. The group is tasked with assessing how decisions made around hospital surge capacity, food stability, unemployment impacts or congregate care setting rules could impact communities of color, Indigenous communities, immigrants and refugees.
The group also works with the Department of Health to effectively get messages out to those various communities in the Native languages of the people and through trusted sources.
“We are now grappling with this system that wasn’t made by or for people of color and Indigenous folks and so undoing that or determining where the choice points are for us to like bend away from the status quo is really the work that is in front of us,” Flanagan said. “These inequities are built-in and so we’re going to have to be intentional with how we undo them.”
In dealing with the pandemic and, earlier this summer in passing a police accountability package, Flanagan said having an Indigenous woman in her office and a vocal People of Color and Indigenous Caucus in the Legislature has helped escalate priority policies.
“While this has been an incredibly difficult time, for Minnesotans and particularly communities of color, I also think this is a time when we can feel things shifting and it’s a time of movement and we need to do everything we can to take this opportunity to change as much as possible,” she said. “We disrupted that cycle this time and I think those are some of the things that we should get used to doing and that should become the way that we work all the time.”