RED LAKE -- Child welfare, the pandemic and its fallout, community, chemical health, tribal sovereignty, childcare, education and project development were the main themes of the long-awaited Red Lake Nation State of the Band Address.

Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki Sr., along with 14 department heads, addressed a small crowd gathered at the Red Lake powwow grounds on Friday to celebrate together in person and fully acknowledge the realities of what the community has lived through in the 16 unprecedented months since last year’s State of the Band Address.

The event was one of the first large in-person events held since the repeal of the medical martial law executive order in Red Lake Nation, which had been in place since the beginning of April 2020.

A sign of the times, a vaccine clinic was being held simultaneously at the event. The address featured traditional singing and dancing, the return of youth royalty and members of the honor guard.

Red Lake Nation Royalty enters the State of the Band address on Friday, May 28, 2021, at the Red Lake Powwow Grounds. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Red Lake Nation Royalty enters the State of the Band address on Friday, May 28, 2021, at the Red Lake Powwow Grounds. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

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“It’s good to see you,” said elder Frances Miller after a prayer opening the event. “It’s good to gather as a nation, as friends, as families.”

A different format than State of the Band Addresses of the past, which are typically held indoors at a casino, this year a meal was provided take-out style.

Video messages were sent in by U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon and U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum who all expressed similar sentiments of support for Red Lake and commended the tribe for their COVID-19 response, pledging to help address inequities exacerbated by the pandemic. Also present at the event were representatives from the City of Bemidji and Beltrami County.

Address highlights by the numbers

  • 15,070 band members as of May 2021.

  • 73 families moved into a newly built tribal apartment complex.

  • 33 Red Lake High School students graduating on May 29.

  • $38 million in grants and federal awards related to the pandemic given to Red Lake Nation.

  • 517 cases of COVID-19 in Red Lake since the start of the pandemic.

  • 10 band member deaths due to COVID-19.

  • 80 acres of bison pasture, with one returned buffalo calf named Renegade.

  • 1 new charter school in the works.

  • 9 COVID-19 medical martial law amendments.

  • 100% Census participation.

  • 94 children reunified with their families in the past year.

  • 76 opioid overdoses in 2021.

  • 13,533 calls for law enforcement service in Red Lake under new public safety director.

“As we rise from the cloud of COVID, let us remember, we have an opportunity to create a new normal for our people,” Tribal Secretary Sam Strong said at the head of the event. “Let us stand together. Let us make a new normal. Let us not be complacent when it comes to drugs and poverty. Let us stand up for those that are in need. Every one of us has a part in making our nation a stronger place with a brighter future.”

Sam Strong, Red Lake Nation secretary, speaks at the Red Lake Nation State of the Band address on Friday, May 28, 2021, at the Red Lake Powwow Grounds. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Sam Strong, Red Lake Nation secretary, speaks at the Red Lake Nation State of the Band address on Friday, May 28, 2021, at the Red Lake Powwow Grounds. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Chairman Seki’s address

“We stood together as a united tribe to face the challenge before us,” Seki said at the top of his address. “We exercised our sovereignty. We did not panic. We stood together as one nation.

It was a very difficult decision to impose all the restrictions on our membership, but something had to be done.”

Seki reflected on a timeline of the COVID-19 mitigation measures -- curfews, closures and other significant changes -- withstood by tribal members.

He declared medical martial law on April 1, 2020, closing the borders of Red Lake Nation.

“The reservation was effectively sealed off to the outside,” Seki said. “To my knowledge, Red Lake was the only government in the United States to impose medical martial law to protect its people. We did it to keep the virus away as long as possible.”

He walked the crowd through the rest of the year -- on May 20, 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was discovered within Red Lake’s borders. Borders were opened in October 2020, but mask requirements and other restrictions stayed in place. The first vaccines arrived in December, with all band members 18 and older being eligible to receive a shot on Feb. 4.

“We lost 10 of our members,” Seki said solemnly, acknowledging the COVID deaths.

“Native Americans suffered greater hospitalizations than any other. Case levels that are 3.5% higher than the white population,” he added, discussing the disparities brought to the forefront by the pandemic.

Red Lake Nation Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki Sr. delivers the State of the Band address on Friday, May 28, 2021, at the Red Lake Powwow Grounds. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Red Lake Nation Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki Sr. delivers the State of the Band address on Friday, May 28, 2021, at the Red Lake Powwow Grounds. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Seki and other Red Lake leaders spoke about the other issues brought to light by the pandemic, including broadband and technology access, childcare, housing insecurity and drug overdoses.

On the future of the pandemic outlook, he stated that Red Lake Nation needs to continue its forward momentum even though he does not yet believe the threat is over.

“It’s still not safe, but it’s time to move on,” Seki said. “Let’s play it safe during this process.”

New development and construction

Following a reflection on COVID-19, Seki cited an array of new developments, both currently underway and on the horizon.

A new Ojibwe-language immersion charter school will open its doors in the fall of 2022. New buffalo are arriving at the 80-acre bison farm, which was expanded and fenced in 2020. And 73 households recently moved into a newly finished apartment complex. More solar panel projects are also underway as the nation makes an effort to move away from fossil fuel sources.

Other new construction included a new fire hall, daycare centers, a dialysis center and a chemical health treatment facility.

Following the referendum vote to legalize medical marijuana in May 2020, the tribe will also construct a medical cannabis production facility, Seki said.

During his address, Seki also spoke out against Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline replacement project, stating, “They tell me to give it up, I will not give it up. They violated our treaty.” These remarks were met with applause from the crowd.

Chemical health

Michael Burns, the new director of the Red Lake Department of Public Safety, discussed the second-largest public health concern in Red Lake -- opioid overdoses.

RELATED: Epidemic within a pandemic: Region sees uptick in drug overdoses

“The amount of drug activity and violent crimes such as shootings and domestic violence was eye-opening,” he said. “I can say there have been calls here that I have never encountered in my 27 years in law enforcement in California.”

The Community Overdose Response Team was formed in November 2020 after a tragic year including 80 overdoses, with four of them resulting in deaths.

Michael Burns, director of public safety in Red Lake, lists statistics during the State of the Band address on Friday, May 28, 2021, at the Red Lake Powwow Grounds. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Michael Burns, director of public safety in Red Lake, lists statistics during the State of the Band address on Friday, May 28, 2021, at the Red Lake Powwow Grounds. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

So far this year there have been 76 opioid overdoses with eight of them resulting in deaths. Nearly all of the overdoses were attributed to fentanyl, Burns said.

The opioid epidemic, which has worsened during COVID-19 was addressed by many speakers from various tribal organizations who hoped to solve the problem not by locking people up but by treating people with compassion, healing through Ojibwe culture and traditions.

Child welfare and education

Another big theme of the 2021 state of the band address was the well-being of Red Lake’s youngest.

Starting on Jan. 1, Red Lake Nation began an American Indian Child Welfare initiative program, reported Cheri Goodwin, director of Children and Family Services for Red Lake. This program was created within a collaborative commitment between the tribal council and state governments with the shared goal of improving child welfare outcomes for American Indian children.

Goodwin said that 94 children were reunited with their families in Red Lake this past year, and to commemorate this, 94 flowers were distributed to people in attendance at the address. Child protection law enforcement calls were also down this year, according to Burns.

To honor the 94 Red Lake children reunited to their families in the past year, 94 carnations were handed out during the Red Lake Nation State of the Band address on Friday, May 28, 2021, at the Red Lake Powwow Grounds. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
To honor the 94 Red Lake children reunited to their families in the past year, 94 carnations were handed out during the Red Lake Nation State of the Band address on Friday, May 28, 2021, at the Red Lake Powwow Grounds. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Red Lake Schools Superintendent Melinda Crowley spoke about the year endured by students, how some things worked well, other things not so well, and how the pandemic brought to light needs like internet and technology access.

“Over the last 16 months, we were faced with challenges we never imagined would happen in our lifetime,” Crowley said. “As a community, we embraced that warrior spirit and controlled how COVID affected the nation.”

RELATED: Delivering meals and familiar faces: Red Lake school staff help keep students fed

Thomas Barrett, director of the Red Lake Boys and Girls Club, touted the organization’s adaptability, telling the crowd about how the programs quickly moved online, generated unprecedented grant money and kept children fed.

Graduates from Red Lake Nation College, the Headstart program, and Red Lake High School were also recognized during the event.

Cultural and tribal sovereignty

Tribal sovereignty and a renewed dedication to preserving language and culture were also woven throughout the event.

Starting with younger members -- both the new immersion charter school and an increase in cultural programming at Red Lake public schools were discussed.

The change in enrollment stipulations to allow for more new band members was mentioned by multiple speakers during the event.

“We have transformed the system that was meant to destroy us,” Strong said of the former enrollment system. “We will stand strong like our ancestors did.”

COVID-19 and its aftermath were a running theme throughout the event. In many cases, speakers discussed how the pandemic affected their organization or department, and how they adapted.

"We need to be proud as Red Lakers because I think we did probably the best job and saved Minnesotans by mitigating this virus," Jerry Loud said. Loud, the director of Oskiimaajitahdah, spoke about new business developments supported by his organizations.

“We have all of these great things happening,” he said, “but we’ve got to tell people about them.”