REDLANDS, Calif. – Bridging tribal tradition with contemporary life can be a challenge, but for Runningbear Ramirez, it all goes hand in hand with his position as a leader in the San Manuel band of Mission Indians. Like many, the pandemic has hit his community hard.
“A lot of our tribal governments have to pretty much shut down while COVID [is] going on,” said Ramirez. “We didn't want a lot of people getting sick. When it came to Indian Health Services, we really had to buckle down.”
Ramirez is on the board for Indian Health Services and a member of a consortium of nine Indian bands that have been working hard to keep their communities informed and to bring in testing and PPE gear during this time.
“There's only so much testing we can do and there's a guideline that we have to follow,” he said. “And that's kind of bad, too, because a lot of times these people don't meet that criteria and they're sick. We're getting there. We're starting to understand that this is going to be a long-term thing. And it's about prevention and mitigation.”
Ramirez says they've been ramping up testing, and although numbers are low for positive cases, the communities themselves are small, so impact is significant.
“I believe there's only been about seven tests that came back positive out of hundreds of tests, but it's a horrible thing to happen because these tribes are small. So, we're all trying to work together to make sure that it stays as far away as possible for Native communities.”
Dedicated to helping his community, Ramirez also recently started a pilot program with Project Angel Food, which provides nutritional guidance to those dealing with serious illness as tribal communities have been inordinately affected by diabetes.
“So, it's going to be a great opportunity to get some good data,” he said.
The economic impact on businesses has also been difficult. Ramirez is from the family that owns and runs the San Manuel Casino, and although the casino just reopened, many jobs were lost in the shutdown.
“It hurt. It hurts to have to make those decisions to let some people go,” he said. “A lot of that was felt throughout the community. But our main goal is the health and safety of our employees and our customers. So, if that means you're going to see a few less people there, that's OK. We just want people to go enjoy themselves, have a good time, but be as safe as possible."
Ramirez has been conducting business mostly from home now and is closely monitoring things as some are warning that a second pandemic wave could shut things down once again.