REGIONAL – When considering the candidates for Bois Forte Band of Chippewa tribal chairperson, voters will likely discover that incumbent Cathy Chavers and challenger Miranda Villebrun Lilya …
REGIONAL – When considering the candidates for Bois Forte Band of Chippewa tribal chairperson, voters will likely discover that incumbent Cathy Chavers and challenger Miranda Villebrun Lilya have much in common.
Both women are open and frank about the challenges they see facing the tribe and its members, and identify similar major issues, although through the benefit of four years in the position, Chavers’s list is longer. Both share the desire to strengthen tribal identity through promoting traditional tribal practices and language. Each has a strong desire to serve in the years ahead, whether they win the election or not. And both are passionate and articulate in describing their visions for the tribe’s future and in making their cases in asking for voters’ support.
The similarities are striking enough that the choice for voters may come down to a couple of important questions. Are they satisfied with the pace of change and progress under Chavers, or will impatience cause them to gravitate toward Villebrun Lilya? And have those changes made during Chavers’s tenure adequately created a level playing field for all, or will the perception among some that inequities still exist be enough to lead them to turn to Villebrun Lilya as their answer?
Chavers was born and raised off the Bois Forte Reservation, but moved there in 1977 and has spent more than 35 years in tribal government administration, with program administration stints in housing, education, and health care eventually leading to a term as a tribal council representative from 2008 to 2012. She was elected chairperson four years ago, and while her experience has been beneficial, she said the job has been a continuous learning experience.
“I really love my job,” Chavers said. “I’ve learned a lot in the last four years. Usually most politicians dread the day-to-day stuff. I view things in a more positive manner.”
Chavers noted that the tribal chairperson doesn’t vote in council meetings except in the case of a tie, but serves to identify issues the council needs to address, can propose solutions and directions, and facilitates the council’s work while being a spokesperson responsible for communicating that work to members, ensuring equity, and pursuing potentially beneficial relationships with local, state, national, and other tribal officials and programs.
Chavers said she’s had plenty to keep her busy since she first stepped into the position.
“We had outdated tribal code, we had outdated ethics, and we had a lot of policy and procedures that weren’t being handled,” she said.
She’s also had to weather two crises while in office, an extended government shutdown and the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Some things have progressed steadily, while others, such as a desire to remove the oversight of Fortune Bay Casino from the tribal council and place it under a newly-created gaming commission composed of tribal members, have moved more slowly. While the gaming commission proposal was high on her list of priorities coming into the job, it’s taken nearly four years to reach the point where a proposal has been circulated among tribal members for comment.
“There used to be a board of directors,” Chavers said. “It was a costly board. The staff at the time didn’t feel we could afford it. We had some steps to make up at Fortune Bay regarding finances, so it wasn’t a good time. Now it’s OK, we’ve kind of gotten back on our feet. We want tribal members to have input. That’s what we’re asking for.”
And while Villebrun Lilya is in full agreement on the need for a gaming commission, her criticism of the document highlights a theme that runs through nearly all of the issues she is running on: a lack of clear communication between tribal leaders and their constituents.
“I have reviewed the documents that the tribal government has put out, and there’s not a lot there to comment on,” she said. “I would like to have seen more of their plan put out there for the people to comment on. Are they looking for just a yes or a no? I don’t know. The communication between the tribal government and our community members is poor right now, and this is an example of that.”
Villebrun Lilya worked for the tribe for over 22 years, working her way up from doing background investigations for potential employees to benefits coordinator, and taking over as human resources director in 2010. She left that position last year, but was motivated to run for tribal chairperson after being contacted by numerous people who voiced concerns, many of which related to inequities, actual or perceived, that spanned multiple aspects of tribal operations and services.
“Once I left the tribal government, I started getting letters and messages about issues they were having,” Villebrun Lilya said. “I realized Bois Forte could do so much better. We could repair ourselves as a tribe.”
Her HR background fuels a second major theme of her candidacy, that well-crafted policies and procedures lay the groundwork for consistent application of rules and practices that will ensure all tribe members receive due consideration and equal treatment. Lacking that, tribe members encounter uncertainty in how to address their concerns, and if indeed their needs will be addressed, which leads to poor morale among employees and members alike, she said.
A shared concern of Chavers and Villebrun Lilya is the toll substance abuse is taking on tribe members.
“Our families don’t feel safe and they don’t feel comfortable in their own neighborhoods,” Villebrun Lilya said. “That’s really important to me as a community member and as a parent.”
Chavers noted that substance abuse issues are intertwined with other problems, citing lack of good employment prospects as one example.
“When we look at the chemical dependency, the drug issue, there are a lot of factors that play into that,” Chavers said.
Chavers said that chemical dependency programs are understaffed, and until the tribal code was revised, it didn’t address the problem of prescription drug abuse. Adolescent abusers have to be sent to out-of-state treatment facilities because there are none in Minnesota, Chavers said. The tribe has hired its own officer with a drug dog, and is looking into purchasing a house that can serve as a treatment facility for mothers and infants, she said. The tribe has a zero-tolerance policy, but Chavers said they realize people need treatment options.
Villebrun Lilya noted that the substance abuse problem isn’t new to the reservation, and that attempts to address it have “failed.” She proposes strengthening the tribal code, hiring more police officers for more rapid response when complaints are filed, prosecuting violators in a more timely manner, and recruiting more input from tribal members about what they are willing to support to end the problem.
Both candidates also prioritize strengthening tribal identity through increased education about tribal traditions and support for cultural practices and Ojibwe language learning. Chavers emphasized a need to also educate the outside world about Ojibwe culture, while Villebrun Lilya wants to promote greater use of technology to make education available to tribe members.
Overall, Villebrun Lilya believes she has the vision and leadership skills to bring about needed change to Bois Forte.
“I think one thing the tribal government needs to do beyond communicating with band members is that we need to be able to improve our services, and that’s going to be organization wide,” she said. “We do have very good services and we have talented staff and educated staff. But we need to improve, we need to make good financial decisions. We can’t continue as we are now.”
Having done the heavy lifting in leading multiple reform efforts the past four years, Chavers believes progress is happening, and credits a tribal council that she says works well together. Her intimate knowledge of that work, her many connections that can benefit the tribe, and her broad and lengthy experience in tribal government are all reasons Chavers feels she’s the best choice to continue as tribal chairperson.
“I’m very well-seasoned,” Chavers said. “I feel I’m the best person because I have many years of experience in tribal government. I think that gives me an upper edge. I’m so proud of the tribal leaders that are on the council now and the things we’ve done the past four years. It just fills your heart knowing that you had the opportunity to do this and you’re doing it.”
More information about each candidate and their campaign issues can be found on their Facebook pages, Miranda Villebrun Lilya and Cathy Chavers for Tribal Chairwoman.