VERMILION RES-ERVATION— Bois Forte Tribal Chairwoman Cathy Chavers laid out land acquisition, workforce development, and addressing the impacts of the opioid epidemic as among her top priorities …
VERMILION RES-ERVATION— Bois Forte Tribal Chairwoman Cathy Chavers laid out land acquisition, workforce development, and addressing the impacts of the opioid epidemic as among her top priorities for the coming years in her State of Band address last Thursday evening at Fortune Bay Resort Casino.
While the Nett Lake and Lake Vermilion reservations are sizable on paper, Chavers noted that the tribe does not own thousands of acres within the borders of its reservations. “Within the reservation boundaries it’s a checkerboard,” she said. “We don’t own a lot of the land within the boundaries.” She said the current tribal council hopes to change that, with a goal of eventually owning all of the land within the borders of the reservation.
One of the biggest landowners within the reservation is Minnesota Chippewa Tribes and the Bois Forte are hoping to transfer title on the approximately 32,000 acres owned by the MCT, to the band. She said the band was working to advance legislation that could make that transfer possible.
She said Potlatch-Deltic was also another large landowner on the reservations and that the tribal agencies have developed a 10-year plan to repurchase as much of that land as possible.
“We strategically selected land for timber harvesting, for hunting, and also for borders,” she said.
Chavers also highlighted ongoing efforts to address the abuse of drugs and alcohol on the reservation. “This is not only plaguing Bois Forte, but the entire country,” she added. “It’s taking our people way too soon.”
She said tribal officials were successful in obtaining new funding to help upgrade the tribal court facilities as well as update the tribal code, which she described as “totally outdated.”
The new funding will allow for additional court system staffing, new software, and a metal detector for the court’s entrance to enhance security.
The new court building, which Chavers said was built with 85-90 percent Bois Forte band member labor, is nearly completed, she said. “We will be having a grand opening on May 30,” she added.
Chavers said the Bois Forte police have also recently purchased a new drug-sniffing dog, named Mika, which is stationed at the police headquarters. “Officer Mika is now a member of the Bois Forte law enforcement and she will stay at Bois Forte for the duration of her service.”
Chavers said the band is also working out an agreement with St. Louis County which will allow the band to house prisoners on short-term stays at the St. Louis County Jail in Virginia. She said that change will help to reduce the time that Bois Forte police are away from the reservation on prisoner transfers. Currently, prisoners are being transported all the way to Sherburne County, near St. Cloud— an eight-hour roundtrip.
While the courts and law enforcement are currently part of the answer with substance abuse, Chavers said the tribal council is also focusing on the mental health and treatment aspects of the problem. She said the council is currently considering the creation of a drug abuse treatment and healing center on property the band owns on Johnson Lake, near Ely.
“It’s beautiful, pristine property on Johnson Lake,” she said. “We want to build a healing center there and use it either for after-care or as an educational facility.”
She said the council is hoping to utilize a variety of partnerships to help facilitate the concept.
On workforce development, Chavers said new approaches are needed to help band members improve their job skills for positions that are available. “One of the statements we keep hearing from band members is ‘I can’t get a job.’ So, we need to give our band members the needed services, resources and skills to gain employment.”
She said the council is in the process of creating their own workforce development office to replace some of the services that were previously funded by federal programs. “It’s important for our band members to have that “one-stop-shop” where you can get the services you need. Maybe you need emergency assistance, maybe you need help with education or training, maybe you need help with an application or a resumé. Whatever. This one-stop-shop is where it’s going to be, and it will be located at the tribal government building.”
Chavers said helping band members in such ways will not only help build their skills and make them more successful. It can also help the tribal government find the workers it needs to provide effective services. “We have jobs, but we don’t have people applying for them,” she said. “We need counselors, we need accounting people, we need maintenance, we need every kind of worker you can imagine but we can’t get people to apply.”
Chavers also thanked staff with KBFT tribal radio and Chas Wagner for increasing the amount of cultural programming now being offered on the reservation. “It’s really nice when you can just go out the door and down the road and there’s an event going on where you don’t have to travel to Cook or Virginia. This has been a really big benefit for us,” she said.
On the economic development front, Chavers noted that the band’s previous efforts at diversification had mixed results and have left considerable debt. She said the current council believes in more input from band members before undertaking such initiatives in the future.
She said the council was focused primarily on reinvesting in the Fortune Bay facility, and that the tribal government had taken a cut in its annual distribution, from the previous $5 million to $2.6 million, from the facility in order to make that possible. She said recent upgrades include new carpeting, new machines, a new roof, and a new back-up generator.
“In years past, as you know, we didn’t have the ability to reinvest, but we have taken a cut from the tribal government side to allow Fortune Bay to invest in themselves,” she said.
Chavers also championed more transparency in tribal government, noting that the current council had recently finished a report on where tribal officials have spent the Fortune Bay distribution dollars over the past ten years. She said that report will be distributed to all band members at the end of May. “We’re trying to improve communication,” she said, citing improvements to the band’s website, located at www.boisforte.com, as well as the start of a Facebook presence.
Finally, Chavers took note of the some of the political gains made by Native Americans and women in the past year. Chavers, herself, was named the President of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribes, the first woman to hold that position. She noted, as well, that two new Native Americans were elected to Congress and that White Earth band member Peggy Flanagan was elected Lt. Gov., making her the first Native American elected to statewide office in Minnesota history. “It is an exciting time in the state of Minnesota for tribes,” she said.