The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Respond to COVID-19

Photo by Patricia LeClaire, Grand Ronde Tribe: Photo Caption: Meals are prepared just prior to the distribution to tribal elders.

  As of May 18, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde have detected no positive cases of COVID-19, with 93 tests being completed by the Grand Ronde Health and Wellness Center.   

With a population of 5,400 tribal members located on and off the Reservation, these low numbers are perhaps not unexpected. Yet considering the rural nature of the community, the caseloads that neighboring counties are experiencing, and the inequitable health outcomes tribal communities face, there are serious concerns about what the threat of a potential outbreak could pose.   

Preventative measures the Tribe is taking are not unlike those other governments are responding with, including the closures of facilities, the cancellations of events, and changing the way services are provided to tribal members.   

Medical & Health Considerations  

The nearest hospital to the Grand Ronde Reservation Headquarters is a 6-bed medical facility in Dallas, Oregon – 23 miles to the southeast. 25 miles to the southwest in Lincoln City, the Samaritan North Lincoln Hospital provides 25 beds. And 27 miles to the northeast in McMinnville is Willamette Valley Medical Center with 67 beds.   

Meanwhile, the Grand Ronde Health and Wellness Center has four full-time medical providers, and as a Clinic, is not equipped with beds or ventilators.  

The Oregon Health Authority reported on May 18 that neighboring Polk County has experienced 93 positive cases and 9 deaths, and neighboring Yamhill County has 59 positive cases and 7 deaths.   

Sara Thompson, Press Secretary with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, explains the risk the Tribe faces: The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde has a substantial disease burden amongst Tribal members, often resulting in inequitable health compared to other races; and consistent with the serious underlying medical conditions identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as high risk factors for severe illness from COVID-19. These conditions include diabetes, chronic lung disease, serious heart conditions, compromised immune systems, kidney disease, and liver disease.   

“Also, many of our Tribal members live in multi-generational households; making it challenging to adhere to preventative measures to protect elder Tribal members or ensure isolation of anyone ill.”   

Closures, Cancellations, & Alterations of Operations  

Spirit Mountain Casino and it’s hotel, Spirit Mountain Lodge, originally closed on March 18 for what was then outlined as a two-week period. Before that period ended, on March 26, the closure was extended to April 9, and on April 2, it was announced the facility would remain closed until further notice.   

In an April 2 press release on the closure, Grand Ronde Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy noted, “Every day we watch the number of cases of COVID-19 grow across Oregon, the region, and the Country. These closures are one way that we can work to protect our staff, our community, and our guests.”  

Thompson explains that the closure will not prevent the continuation of tribal programs to the extent they can be completed while taking safety measures. “While the closure of Spirit Mountain Casino will have an impact on our finances, our early Tribal Leaders planned for situations like these. They put a number of safeguards in place that are allowing us to maintain our services, take care of our community, support our members and support our employees. We will be forever grateful for their foresight.”   

Prior to the initial closure of the Casino, the Tribal Council was able to approve 120 hours of paid time off (PTO) to all Casino and Government employees. This was then doubled to a total of 240 PTO hours at the time of the first closure extension on March 26. On April 27, the Tribal Council approved an additional 80 hours of PTO, bringing the total to eight weeks.  

Educational closures have included all on-site K-12 Youth Education, Language Immersion, and Preschool Programming, as well as the Library and Computer Lab. While these closures make usual modes of learning more difficult, Youth Education staff are available for weekly student or parent check-ins. 

“Our Tribal staff have been working on getting a variety of material out through our various social media channels,” Thompson emphasized. “This includes lessons for students, Kids Culture Circle, stories read in Chinuk Wawa [the Tribe’s common language], posts that highlight different cultural resources or parts of the Tribe’s story. [These] are just a few of the ways that we’re working on maintaining that cultural connection during this time of social distancing.“   

This is especially important considering that the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center and the Elder Activity Center are closed, and that many cultural events had to be cancelled as well, including a Memorial Day Ceremony, Elder Honor Day, First Fish Ceremony at Willamette Falls, and Canoe Journey.  

Meanwhile, the Grand Ronde Health and Wellness Center medical providers are still performing necessary health care in their facility, but are also relying on telemedicine to see patients. At this time, staff have adequate personal protective equipment, and are monitoring it closely to ensure that they are prepared for potential response activities.   

As with other medical institutions, patients with cold or flu-like symptoms are advised not to enter the Center, but to call in first for triage and alternative entrance to reduce the risk of exposure to other patients and staff.  

The nine-member Tribal Council is also continuing monthly decision-making meetings, with social distancing measures in effect and public viewing available online.   

On May 18, the Tribal Government began a three-phased approach to reopening, including changes to Tribal Operations designed to protect staff and the public.   

Relief at Different Levels  

The U.S. Coronavirus Aid, Recovery, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed into law on March 27, and included an allocation of $8 billion to federally recognized tribes. However, the Treasury Department did not begin sending payments to tribes until May 5, and is only distributing about 60% of the original allocation, reportedly due to pending litigation related to the eligibility of tribal for-profit businesses that serve tribal villages in Alaska.   

Despite the delay, Thompson says, “relief packages will help and we are grateful for the work of our partners on the local, state and federal levels.”   

On the other hand, she continues, “agencies tasked with looking out for our Nation’s Tribes and programs, like the Indian Health Service, are already grossly underfunded, so there is always an opportunity to do more. We need flexible funding and more of it so we can put the funds to work in our community and protect our most vulnerable members.”   

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, like many local governments, is also providing their members with financial relief aid. On April 1, the Tribal Council approved the COVID-19 Payment Relief Program, which provided $400 payments to each adult Tribal member 18 and older, and was distributed on April 29.   

Of the situation as a whole, Thompson said, “As a Tribe we are very blessed. From the beginning, the Tribe’s dedicated staff have been working to protect our community while continuing to provide resources and services. Every week they are they delivering 800 meals to our elders and their spouses, delivering food boxes and basic household needs, and doing what they can to support everyone.”  

Background on the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde  

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde is one of nine federally recognized tribes in the State of Oregon, with a 9,811-acre Reservation that was restored in 1983.   

In 1954, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde were terminated during a period of U.S. government policy that led to hundreds of tribes across the country losing their federal recognition. Termination followed a century of downsizing the original 61,000-acre reservation that was created after the forced removal of Umpqua, Kalapuya, Rogue River, and Chasta peoples from their ancestral homelands beginning in 1856. The Ampinefu Band of Kalapuya are the original inhabitants of the present-day Corvallis area and Marys River watershed.   

Today, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde has rebuilt vital institutions and programs to meet the needs of its members, and has a strong vision for the future. The Tribe is governed by an elected nine-member Tribal Council, and its reservation has grown to 11,500 acres since restoration.   

The opening of the Spirit Mountain Casino and Spirit Mountain Lodge in 1955 has led to the employment of 1,100 people — both enrolled tribal members and non-natives — and allows for the Tribe to give back to the greater community through the Spirit Mountain Community Fund as well as supporting a number of tribal programs including education, housing, economic development, natural resources, cultural resources, and health and wellness services.   

What the Corvallis Community Can Do  

While the Grand Ronde community may seem far away from Corvallis, the history that links the two is significant. With this in mind, Corvallis residents may participate in preparedness efforts as they are safe and able to.   

Thompson says, “The Tribe has put out a call for volunteers who are willing to make masks that we can distribute to Tribal elders, staff still serving the community, the Tribal community members and their families.”   

Looking ahead to the future, Thompson continues, “Outside of this pandemic, I think the greatest way for the Corvallis community to give back is to engage. Learn the Tribe’s story and share that story by engaging with the Tribe’s active social media presence.”   

By Ari Blatt