Food distribution brings physical, spiritual sustenance to pandemic-weary Fort Hall Reservation

FORT HALL RESERVATION, Idaho — There’s a familiar expression from the local native language that you may hear while visiting Idaho’s Fort Hall Reservation: “Oos tsa’i siki neme sogope ga’me bidi.” 

Translated, it means “It is good you have come to our land.”

Those words capture both the hospitality of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes that call this stretch of southeast Idaho their home — and the difficult, daily reality of many on the reservation who are in need of help.

Over the past year, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of 17 tribal members. Scores more have been infected. And the virus continues to threaten the physical, emotional and economic health of many living within the boundaries of the reservation and beyond. 

“Everybody is struggling to pay the bills or purchase food,” said Randy’L He-Dow Teton, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes public affairs manager. “And those that do work are assisting other families, because we are a small-knit community. … In our community, everybody knows one another, we’re all related to one another. So when one [person is affected] it affects all of our community.”

But no one on this reservation of about 2,000 (thousands more Shoshone-Bannock Tribes members are living in Pocatello and other neighboring communities) need to suffer alone. Neighbors, both inside and outside Fort Hall Reservation, are looking out for one another.

Happy food box ‘crews’ 

On Monday, Feb. 1, members of the Pocatello Idaho Tyhee Stake spent the day organizing and distributing 1,300 food boxes to residents on the reservation and others. Social-distancing was a priority, so food recipients stayed in their cars while teams of masked volunteers from the stake loaded boxes of the needed provisions into their trunks and back seats.

Each food box was donated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and contained enough nutrient-rich staples — including milk, eggs, fresh produce and meat — to provide families with at least two square meals. The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes leadership also donated hand sanitizer, disinfectant cleaning wipes and other supplies to help keep their people healthy.

The donated food boxes “help us a lot,” said Courtney Workman, a local Latter-day Saint. “COVID is hard. My husband lost his job, and we had to go a few months without work. We had to move, and we’re living with family until we can afford to get into a place.”

But Workman said she has been blessed. Her family has remained healthy. And she is grateful to be surrounded by kind neighbors and fellow members.

“This food will go a long way, it really helps,” added Church and tribal member Shawn Aponi. The past year has often been difficult for Aponi. His wife battled the virus.  Meanwhile, quarantining and local restrictions sometimes kept Aponi from his job site.

But he smiled Monday as he surveyed his friends and fellow Latter-day Saints stepping forward to offer a hand.

Monday’s distribution was the third of its kind on the Fort Hall Reservation in recent weeks. 

Under frigid but clear blue skies, cars filled with families and folks of all ages arrived early Monday at the Latter-day Saint meetinghouse, where the boxes were stacked outside like building blocks in “stations” to allow for both efficient and safe distribution. 

Missionaries joined stake volunteers, loading food boxes into streams of vehicles crawling in orderly fashion around the meetinghouse parking lot. There were plenty of smiles, waves and good-natured fun.

A divinely-issued call to serve

Pocatello Idaho Tyhee Stake President Ross Hugues is both a local ecclesiastical leader and a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Working together to help feed, fortify and lift others is helping his stake members and tribe during a time of struggle and fear.

Randy’L He-Dow Teton, public affairs manager and COVID-19 public information officer for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, talks with President Ross Hugues, the president of the Pocatello Idaho Tyhee Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as volunteers from the Church pack USDA food boxes into waiting vehicles during a giveaway at the Latter-day Saint chapel along U.S. 91 between West Tyhee and West Reservation roads in Fort Hal, Idaho, on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. The event is part of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program and is part of the USDA’s Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
Randy’L He-Dow Teton, public affairs manager and COVID-19 public information officer for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, talks with President Ross Hugues, the president of the Pocatello Idaho Tyhee Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as volunteers from the Church pack USDA food boxes into waiting vehicles during a giveaway at the Latter-day Saint chapel along U.S. 91 between West Tyhee and West Reservation roads in Fort Hal, Idaho, on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. The event is part of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program and is part of the USDA’s Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Credit: Steve Griffin, Deseret News

“We have families that are really suffering because of COVID-19, whether it’s because they haven’t been able to work because of illness or because their workplace has been shut down and they haven’t been able to be gainfully employed,” said President Hugues. “This food distribution is just one of the many ways that we are able to relieve some of that suffering.”

Pat Rasmussen, a local Relief Society sister and tribal member, said joining in with one of the food box distribution crews on a chilly February day was exactly where she needed to be.

“It is important for us to serve — that’s what the Savior wants us to do,” she told the Church News as she waited for the next car in line. “There are definitely needs here. We have people without power and without heat, and not enough food. So today’s [distribution] is definitely a great thing.”

He-Dow Teton is a familiar, influential face on the reservation. Even first-time visitors to Fort Hall likely recognize her. She was the model used to design the U.S. dollar coin featuring Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who famously served as guide and interpreter for the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

As she watched the day’s final string of cars pull away from the Church parking lot, He-Dow Teton said she won’t soon forget the unity demonstrated at Monday’s food distribution.

“I’m very thankful for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the USDA for providing this service,” she said. “I hope we can have more of these services in the future so we can provide for our families in need.”