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‘Mohegan Way’ response to the pandemic

In the early 1600s, the Mohegan Tribe was born out of a period of immense difficulty and change in Connecticut. Infectious diseases were decimating local Native American tribes, and the influx of European settlers was forcing our first tribal leaders to wrestle with how best to adapt to a world that was quickly changing around them. Together, they made a purposeful choice to focus on a spirit of cooperation and collaboration to guide their decisions. They named this philosophy “The Mohegan Way,” and it helped to lead our people out of that dark period, and ever since.

In 2021, this philosophy has never felt more relevant. It has been the driving force in how the Mohegan Tribe has approached the COVID-19 pandemic, guiding our choices and actions at every step over this past year. It’s my hope that through those actions, we are not only helping our Connecticut neighbors in direct, tangible ways, but that we are also serving as ambassadors for cooperation, instilling a spirit of togetherness that will help us collectively navigate this difficult time, and return to a state of normalcy in the months ahead.

When COVID-19 began, one of the first and most impactful choices our tribe made was opting to shut down our casino entirely in March of last year. This was not a simple choice: our business operations support the livelihoods of not just our tribal members but thousands of non-tribal employees, as well as many local Connecticut businesses. However, through cooperative conversations with our fellow tribal nation and the state, it was clear we needed to act to protect the public health of not just our members, but our neighbors, and we did just that.

Months later we partially reopened, but only after investing millions of dollars to install ultramodern technology and instituting new safety procedures to keep our employees and customers safe.

Throughout 2020, our tribe found ways to help our neighbors: we donated food to those in need, delivered large amounts of PPE to local health providers, and helped serve as a major COVID-19 testing site at no cost to the state. Just last week we took another exciting step in this work, announcing jointly with the state and Yale New Haven Health that we would host a large-scale vaccination clinic on tribal land. That clinic is now operational, vaccinating hundreds of Connecticut residents each day they are open and with plans to expand as vaccine supply increases.

In recent weeks, some tribal members have told me they’re unsure whether they want to take the vaccine. I tell them: remember the Mohegan Way. Think of your neighbor. Think of how we must all get through this together, so we can return to normal.

I would offer the same advice to all of our neighbors in Connecticut. I know that there are people who are unsure about the vaccine, even when they are eligible. And of course, they should listen to their doctor first. But we know that doctors and scientists are recommending these vaccines. Elected officials at every level and from both parties -- including Governor Lamont -- are taking the vaccine themselves. We know these vaccines are safe and effective.

Here’s something else we know: the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly devastating to minority groups, including Native Americans. The pandemic has killed Native Americans at twice the rate of those of Caucasian descent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus has torn through reservations, taking from us many beloved tribal elders that our communities rely on for their knowledge and connection to our past.

Black and Hispanic populations similarly have seen death rates that double that of whites. The problem is made worse because these same populations are getting vaccinated at lower rates. The Connecticut Department of Public Health recently released data showing that white residents are getting the vaccine at twice the rate as Black and Hispanic residents. Failing to reverse these trends will only result in a widening of poverty and achievement gaps in the years ahead.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can in fact get back to normal, and even use this terrible pandemic as a reason to bond closer together, to cooperate more, to lift one another up, and to find more common ground. The Mohegan Tribe will continue working each day in that spirit, and we hope that all our neighbors in Connecticut will join us. After all, we’re all in this together.

James Gessner Jr. is chairman of the Mohegan Tribal Council.



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