A Tulalip Tribes seafood wholesaler used the economic challenges of the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to help out another tribal nation.
With restaurants closed and residents of Washington state ordered to stay home to stay healthy, tribal member Rudy Madrigal of Coast Salish Seafood found himself with a freezer full of fish and no one to sell it to.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 was ravaging the Navajo Nation, whose reservation crosses three state borders – Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
In May, CNN reported that the Navajo Nation had more than 4,000 cases of COVID-19, surpassing New York and New Jersey for the highest number of infections per capita in the country.
As of mid-June, there were more than 6,800 cases of COVID and more than 300 deaths within the Navajo Nation, according to the Navajo Nation Department of Health.
Even before then, Madrigal’s brother, Michael “Big Mike” Frease, told him, “‘I’m going to gather up food and different things and drive down to Navajo where the people are starving. They need it. They’re calling for me.”
Frease, from Pomo Wintun in Northern California, is an activist, Madrigal explained.
“He wants to bring seafood to people who can’t get it. It doesn’t matter the struggle. Fishing opportunities have disappeared for so many different reasons.”
Madrigal donated everything in his freezer: about 1,000 pounds of halibut, cod, tuna, swordfish, fresh salmon and smoked salmon.
“I probably had 20 to 30 cases of jarred smoked salmon,” he said.
They loaded the seafood, along with other donations of food and clothing from Tulalip tribal members, into a U-Haul that Frease drove with Flabio “Rusty” Loera to Arizona. There, they met up with Leroy Dempsey and Millie Homes, whom they met a few years earlier when the Navajo couple had been looking for a flea market near the Tulalip casino.
“We saw these guys selling fish,” Dempsey said. “We stopped and that’s where we got to know them. We became family.”
The coronavirus quarantine worsened the nation’s food insecurity, Frease said. With minimal electricity, some on the Navajo Reservation had no freezers, and no place to store food.
“Sometimes they have to travel two hours to get to the store,” Frease said. “So us being able to give them jars of fish allowed them to stay at home a little longer.”
The more rural parts of the reservation were under a strict quarantine, so Homes’ aunt drove the donation boxes where the U-Haul could not travel, and left them on driveways.
“A lot of people really enjoyed the fish,” Dempsey said. “We know that fish is medicine, just like our medicine is horse.”
Frease said that Madrigal doesn’t give himself enough credit. “Rudy is a very humble man. He’s business-oriented, but he believes in food sovereignty.”
Members of the Navajo Nation in Arizona receive frozen and canned salmon from Tulalip Tribes’ seafood wholesaler Rudy Madrigal. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Frease