The Ute Mountain Ute tribe has turned its casino into a food distribution hub

(Photo courtesy of Ute Mountain Casino Hotel) The bingo room at the Ute Mountain Casino Hotel in Towaoc, Colo., has been transformed into a hub of coronavirus relief efforts.

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During a typical week, the bingo hall at the Ute Mountain Casino Hotel in Towaoc, Colo., fills with hundreds of people from around the Four Corners region hoping for a lucky break. On special occasions, it’s used to host concerts and holiday feasts.

But last month — after the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council voted to close the casino due to coronavirus concerns — the bingo room was transformed into a hub of the tribe’s relief efforts.

The long tables are filled with scales, scoops and boxes, said Rick Scheer, the casino’s general manager. Walk into the hall this week, he explained, and you’ll see no bingo players, but plenty of employees and volunteers dividing up sacks of rice, beans, flour and powdered milk.

Drivers then load the food and cases of bottled water onto trailers and deliver them to tribal members in Towaoc and the town of White Mesa in Utah’s San Juan County, which is also on Ute Mountain Ute land.

“My hat is off to our tribal council and our tribal chairman for just how they’ve stepped up for their community,” Scheer said, adding that the casino’s relationship with distributors has been helpful in getting supplies like toilet paper.

An estimated 650 of the tribe’s 2,100 enrolled members received food, water and supplies in the first two weeks of the program alone, and the casino’s hotel has been converted into lodging for Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement officers and first responders.

As of Friday, there were no known coronavirus cases on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation, but Colorado, with 6,202 confirmed cases and 227 deaths, had the second-highest per capita infection rate in the Western United States after Washington. And the Navajo Nation, which begins just south of Towaoc, announced 558 cases Thursday amid a rapidly escalating outbreak that’s straining the rural health care systems in northwest New Mexico and northern Arizona.

(Photo courtesy of Ute Mountain Casino Hotel) Volunteers and employees of the Ute Mountain Casino Hotel in Towaoc, Colo., load food onto trailers to assist with coronavirus relief efforts on Ute Mountain Ute lands.

Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart announced Wednesday in one of his near daily online video briefings that the tribe would begin distributing masks and gloves, along with the food, and he asked tribal members to wear masks at all times in public.

Heart added that internet hot spots have been set up near Towaoc to allow students to download homework that’s being assigned while schools remain closed.

“We’re going through a difficult time with the medical emergency of COVID-19 coronavirus,” Heart said. “Bear with us. Be patient. Say your prayers. Stay at home.”

Like the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe has implemented a curfew from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. nightly, which it is enforcing with roadblocks. Vehicles entering tribal lands are also being screened during the day.

“If you’re not a resident or tribal member and you don’t have direct business here, you’re not allowed to come in,” said Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe who served on the first Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in 2016.

“I’ve not spoken very highly about being on reservations and how we ended up here,” she said, “but in this situation, it actually gives our tribal leaders the authority to really make a decision that’s impactful for the betterment of the people as a whole. ... It’s a strange blessing.”

Authorities distributed a plastic sleeve with emergency numbers and a set of colored cards to elders in the community, Lopez-Whiteskunk said, which they have been asked to place on their door or in a window.

“If the elder keeps the green card up, it means, ‘I’m OK,’” she explained, “and you don’t necessarily have to go and knock on the door.” But if the elder is feeling ill and wants a check-in, they can indicate that with the cards.

The food distribution is designed to help ease some of those financial burdens and to prevent tribal members from having to travel to town to shop, which could increase the risk of picking up the virus. Lopez-Whiteskunk said in White Mesa where her son and grandkids live, for example, many residents rely on bottled water because they fear their tap water has been contaminated by the White Mesa uranium mill, located a few miles north of the town, so the supply drops have proven helpful.

The card system along with the travel restrictions and food distribution efforts illustrate a level of community coordination that hasn’t necessarily been seen in towns off the reservation.

“Tribal governments, because of their sovereignty, they have that capacity to protect the people,” Lopez-Whiteskunk said, noting that similar efforts have been undertaken in the past during tuberculosis and whooping cough outbreaks.

The restrictions may be inducing a bit of cabin fever, she added. “If you were to drive around the community here, everybody has done their spring cleaning in the yards and is trying to do their best in occupying their time.”

The casino, which is the largest employer for tribal members, has stayed partially open to provide essential services like check cashing. And the tribe’s travel centers in Utah and Colorado, which are also operated by the casino, have remained open to support truckers.

About three quarters of the casino’s more than 400 employees have been furloughed with pay through April 24, however, and Scheer said managers are hoping for federal assistance to help offset the cost of maintaining payroll.

Smaller gaming operations have been explicitly excluded from federal support under the CARES Act, the massive stimulus bill passed in March, under guidelines set by the Small Business Administration. Native American tribes across the country that rely on gaming revenue have been hard hit by the closure of 500 gaming facilities with a total of $1.5 billion in lost economic activity over two weeks and 296,000 people out of work, according to one economic analysis.

The National Indian Gaming Association condemned the federal guidelines in a statement released last week, arguing the Small Business Administration’s current guidance will have far-reaching adverse impacts on tribal citizens and nontribal neighbors. On Wednesday, six members of Congress from Nevada also called for smaller casinos to be protected.

“Financially, [the pandemic has affected] a lot of people through the loss of jobs, furloughs and loss of businesses,” Heart said in a briefing Monday. “Bills are starting to pile up, rent, monthly payments to creditors, and access to cash to purchase essential needs.”

But Heart cautioned against giving in to fear.

“We as the Ute people are a resilient tribe,” Heart said. “We have been in these mountains for thousands of years. We are the Mountain People. We will endure this together.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.