About four months after the Little Shell Tribe of Montana received federal recognition, tribal leaders are dealing with the impacts of COVID-19.
“We were having a good time on January 25th and everybody, over 1,000 people, crowded into a hotel banquet room, celebrating,” said Chairman Gerald Gray.
Fast forward to April.
Gray said they now run council meetings on Zoom, and some plans have been delayed.
Because the tribe is federally recognized, they’re supposed to receive funding under the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, which President Donald Trump signed in March.
They have not received any money yet, but it would help them, according to Gray.
On Thursday he posted on Facebook urging members to stay at home, even as state leaders prepare to lift restrictions in phases.
He wrote: "The reality is …. until there’s a vaccine, this virus is still out there and no one is immune to catching it. We need to take this pandemic slowly and think about our elders and the most vulnerable during this time of uncertainty."
Gray said he is concerned for the health of the more than 5,000 members of the Little Shell Tribe.
Though he recognizes the economic impacts of the closure, he wishes Montana leaders would wait a little longer to reopen.
"For the Little Shell, we don't have a reservation right now,” Gray said in an interview Friday. “So we can't close anything off. I personally feel it's too early … We don't have the health care at all, or any kinds of facilities or funds to assist our members, if need be.”
Tribal members are able to access health care through the Indian Health Service, but for many people the closest locations are in Box Elder or Browning, both more than 100 miles away from Great Falls.
"During this period, we've told members, if they're close to one of those, go try that. If not, then go to the nearest emergency room,” Gray said. "And that's all we can offer right now."
Gray said they’re currently working towards opening a Little Shell Urgent Care Clinic in Great Falls, at a building built for medical use.
He’s looking at funding avenues for the clinic, which he estimates would cost around $1 million.