The pandemic and its effects were a common thread throughout the reports given at the first day of the Nez Perce Tribe’s Fall General Council, which was streamed online.
Nimiipuu Health Medical Director Kim Hartwig spoke Thursday morning about testing and vaccine planning in a presentation about how the COVID-19 pandemic is being managed on the reservation.
Nimiipuu Health has conducted 2,262 COVID-19 tests and 393 of those have come back positive. Nimiipuu Health has the capacity to do 50 to 60 tests per day, Hartwig said.
There are 76 active cases of the deadly disease among tribal members, and Hartwig cautioned the online audience that regional hospitals are at capacity with the recent uptick in cases.
Nimiipuu Health is working on vaccine planning for the tribe and will work with Indian Health Service on distribution of the vaccine. Health care providers and first responders will likely get vaccines through the state of Idaho. The tribe is working to identify priority groups for once the vaccine is ready, Hartwig said.
Other topics addressed during Thursday’s meeting included:
Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee Chairman Shannon Wheeler discussed how the tribe is working to hold the federal government accountable, especially on the lower Snake River salmon and dams issue.
“Restoring the lower Snake River is urgent and overdue,” Wheeler said. “The lower Snake River is a life force and needs to be restored now.”
He mentioned the recent efforts to establish solar power on tribal buildings as one way the tribe is working to make the lower Snake River dams obsolete.
“For every megawatt we produce, we are that much closer,” he said.
The tribe’s energy initiative is working with RevoluSUN to install solar panels on buildings and training tribal members in all facets of renewable energy education, including design, engineering and installation. The goal is to create energy independence for the tribe.
There were 50 tribe members employed by the project during the pandemic. The project is nearing completion, Climate and Energy Subcommittee Chairman Casey Mitchell said.
Wheeler discussed the tribe’s opposition to Midas Gold’s plans for a gold mine at the Stibnite site on the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River.
“It will destroy our fish,” he said. “It will ruin our habitat and damage our treaty rights for generations to come.”
Natural Resources Subcommittee Chairman Ferris Paisano III said the tribe’s efforts opposing the gold mine were “making a lot of friends in Valley County and McCall.”
The tribe is also working on a climate change vulnerability assessment and adaptation plan. The tribe also has a 2.5-gigahertz license now for a wireless network, Wheeler said.
“The spectrum license is a significant step giving us rights to our airwaves over our reservation,” Wheeler said.
The tribe is moving forward on converting farmland it owns near Mann Lake into a vineyard. The tribe may sell the wine grapes it grows on the site to other wineries, or the tribe may someday produce its own wines, he said.
The tribe is also moving forward with its hemp ordinance, which will be sent to the USDA soon. The USDA would return the ordinance to the tribe within 60 days before it could go into effect. The tribe’s water code that it developed is now awaiting approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Mitchell, the NPTEC treasurer, discussed CARES Act funding, government budgets, tribal investments, the Minor’s Trust Fund and the fiscal year 2019 audits.
The tribe received $16.6 million in CARES Act funding, which must be spent by the end of the year or be returned to the federal government. Tribal members sent in questions asking for a breakdown of the funding, where it has been spent and what is left. Mitchell said it could be done.
The funds cannot be used for a “per capita” payment to tribal members, Mitchell said. The funding has thus far been used supporting tribal elders and minors with 31 percent of the funds; 27 percent went toward PPE purchases, emergency leave and hazard pay; 26 percent provided to tribal departments for facility enhancements; and 16 percent of the money was still on hand in reserve on Sept. 30, Mitchell said.
The tribe used some of the money to buy every school-aged child a computer or laptop computer for learning from home is schools go to online learning models.
The government budget for fiscal year 2022 will likely be adversely affected by the two-month shutdown of the casinos because of the pandemic this year, Mitchell said. Many tribal departments spent less money this year and all cut budgets by 5 percent because of the pandemic.
Tribal investments are at about $167 million. The tribe has about $202 million in cash and investments, Mitchell said. The tribe’s investments had made about $8 million as of Sept. 30.
The tribe’s Minor’s Trust Fund was moved from Umpqua Wealth Management, which dissolved its investment arm, to Breakwater Investment Group LLC in Seattle.
Land Enterprise Subcommittee Chairman Quincy Ellenwood discussed properties the tribe has acquired or is in the process of acquiring. The Hays Ranch property purchase near Wallowa Lake in Oregon could close as early as Dec. 1.
The property has significant historical and cultural value to the tribe and Wheeler noted that the property would be used as a Nez Perce headquarters in Oregon. The property would help the tribe have better relationships with local and state government and would allow tribal members to once again live and move with the changes of the seasons, noting the property would be a good place to spend June through August.
The tribe purchased 80 acres near its Clear Creek Hatchery in August, Ellenwood said.
Paisano discussed the difficulty of working with the Trump administration on natural resources issues and he hoped the incoming Biden administration would be better to work with. The tribe has had problems working with the Trump administration because local federal agencies are not allowed to make decisions and the decisions are being made in Washington, Paisano said.
Paisano mentioned the tribe’s Steelhead Kelt project that spent $444,459 on capturing spawned-out female steelhead and keeping them for a year before releasing them into the river to return to the ocean. The program is helping wild steelhead production.
Tribal members sent in questions throughout the day by email, text and by phone. Many questions came in about homeless tribal members and what the Executive Committee was going to do about it.
Wheeler said sites for dormitory-style housing had been identified in Lapwai, Kamiah and Orofino. Wheeler also wondered if some tribal homeless would prefer a traditional village setting where they could live as the Nez Perce did long ago.
Other questions dealt with hiring practices by the tribe. Some questions expressed concern that young tribe members were returning with college degrees, but were being passed over for jobs with the tribe. Other questions expressed concern that tribal preferences in hiring practices did not give tribal members enough credit. One question mentioned that only 14 of 45 recent hires went to tribal members.
Wheeler said more needs to be done to create a fair process and acknowledged that language that calls for managerial discretion could be tipping the hiring process out of balance by providing more opportunities for nontribal members.
The General Council was held online Thursday and will continue today.
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