Wary of a coronavirus ‘wildfire,’ Spirit Lake, Turtle Mountain enact tougher restrictions

Photo: Pixabay

As institutions across the United States work to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Spirit Lake Tribe and Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa leaders have clamped down harder and faster than their counterparts who govern non-tribal communities, even as the number of positive cases on either reservation holds at zero.

In Turtle Mountain, Chairman Jamie Azure on Friday was set to declare a state of emergency that urges residents to stay home, closes nonessential businesses, prohibits public and private gatherings of any number that aren’t contained to a single household, and bars nonessential travel. The declaration consolidates and codifies a series of executive orders and tribal council resolutions that had come down over the past month-plus. The Ojibwe tribe is also putting more weight behind longstanding but generally unenforced 10 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfews.

Much of the same is true in Spirit Lake, where leaders have instituted mandatory self-isolation for residents who return to tribal land and a reservation-wide curfew that also lasts from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. People who violate either risk fines or jail time, and most tribal businesses, facilities, and services are offline for the moment.

Like other cities and states across, some people haven’t adhered to either tribe’s directives, and enforcement is a challenge. Spirit Lake has five police officers responsible for about 4,500 residents spread across 375,000 acres; Turtle Mountain has about a dozen officers responsible for 15,000 residents across 46,000 acres.

But Spirit Lake Chairperson Peggy Cavanaugh said she’s generally felt pressure to get even tougher.


“I’ve had messages from our community ... saying, ‘there’s cars on the road. Where’s the enforcement?’,” she told the Herald. On Friday morning, she said, a member of Spirit Lake’s tribal council worried that they were not being “strong and strict” enough.

The worry, Cavanaugh explained, is that the virus could spread like “wildfire” there. Many residents live in large, multigenerational households that have become more crowded as schools and workplaces close, and the kind of underlying health conditions that coronavirus preys on – diabetes and heart disease, for instance – are endemic.

“If that virus comes here, all of those barriers or those challenges with our health, in our communities, the poverty levels, the lack of housing,” Cavanaugh said. “And then our culture and tradition is to take people in that – or families that – don’t have homes or they need help. And it’s not like we have five, six bedrooms for every family.”

Azure said he had the same concern.

“We’re so compact on our small land base and heavy population, that it does make me afraid that once we do – or if we do – get that first positive case, that it will spread rather quickly, here,” he told the Herald.

Tribes like Turtle Mountain also don’t have much infrastructure to quarantine people who test positive, he said.

And there’s a broad concern for elders, who are held in particularly high cultural regard. Older adults are at a higher risk for developing more serious complications from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“They are the foundation of our families and communities,” Cavanaugh said. “Losing them is losing history, and in many tribes who have only a few elders left it would be devastating to lose all, let alone even one.”


There is no hospital in Spirit Lake, but the tribe runs a federally funded outpatient clinic that has 52 test kits that use a throat swab, plus 400 nasal wash collection kits for tests, at the ready. They’ve needed to use four test kits thus far, and Spirit Lake staff are working to secure a private vendor for additional tests to supplement the ones they’re receiving from the state government and federal Indian Health Service.

Benson County, which encompasses the bulk of the reservation, has reported no positive cases of COVID-19.

Cavanaugh said disproportionately high rates of chronic health problems meant that Spirit Lake’s health systems, which are federally funded by locally run, are ill-equipped to prepare for the pandemic. She worried that additional resources would be slow to arrive.

Turtle Mountain has an IHS hospital that’s federally funded and run, but largely staffed by band members. (The money that pays for it and Spirit Lake’s clinic is part of the U.S. government’s treaty obligations and not, contrary to mildly popular belief, a handout.)

Workers at the Turtle Mountain hospital have performed 50-80 tests, none of which have come back positive, and they try to keep at least 20 at the ready. On Thursday, Azure said, they had 45 ready to go.

But does he think Turtle Mountain has sufficient testing equipment?

“Absolutely not,” Azure said, matter-of-factly. “But ... there’s a shortage across the country.”

Turtle Mountain staff are also angling to acquire some of the “rapid” testing equipment that’s been proliferating across the country, which Azure said can perform five tests per hour.


He also stressed that the burden of leadership isn’t his alone – it’s being shared by Bureau of Indian Affairs workers, school superintendents, and the tribal council there.

“It amazes me how everybody can come together,” Azure said. “How do you get the Turtle Mountains to rise up? Tell them that we can’t do something. Our people, all petty differences go out the window and everybody comes together.”

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
What To Read Next
Get Local