Minnesota officials work to mend historically fraught relationship with tribes
Law requires each state agency to designate a liaison to work with tribes, as well as tribal-state relations training for those liaisons and other leaders in the state's workforce.
ST. PAUL — In place of a tie, Tim Walz wore a bright orange and blue beaded necklace to the bill signing ceremony, a Native-made Ojibwe medallion that was gifted to the governor.
It was a deliberate fashion choice to mark the significance of the moment: the state's highest office holder reinforcing in the law books the sovereignty of Minnesota's tribal nations. In putting his name to paper, Walz was promising in law that he and governors who follow him would consult government-to-government with the tribes.
"We're signing something that changes the way things have been done for 163 years," Walz said Nov. 8, surrounded by tribal leaders and their flags. The legislation, agreed to in 11th-hour budget negotiations this summer, is the latest in the state government's push to improve its historically fraught relationships with Minnesota's 11 Native American tribes.
It requires each state agency to designate a liaison to work with tribes, as well as tribal-state relations training for those liaisons and other leaders in the state's workforce. In October, Minnesota House members held a two-day training with tribal leaders. The state Department of Transportation is erecting a dozen signs across northern Minnesota marking the boundaries of the state's 1854 treaty with three Ojibwe bands.
"For 400 years, we have been fighting to be seen and to be acknowledged," said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and Minnesota's first Native statewide elected official. "Sometimes when there's good stuff that happens, it's hard for us to completely acknowledge it because we've been fighting for so long."
Tribes negotiated for sovereignty in treaties when ceding vast swaths of their land to the U.S. government. That allows tribes to manage their own affairs and hold elections. Each of Minnesota's tribes is independent, creating sometimes complex working relationships with local and state officials.
Governors dating back to Jesse Ventura have issued executive orders pledging to work with the tribes, but tribal leaders said administrations still often acted on policy that affected their members without consulting them. And any future governor could end those executive orders.
The tribes teamed up and worked with the Walz administration to draft language to etch the relationship into law.
"First, it's that there's a respect and understanding that tribal nations are governments, that they're not seen as another county in the state," said Patina Park, director of tribal state relations in the governor's office. "As that sinks in for agencies, that this is a government, then it really is about good diplomacy. Having meaningful conversations and including them as early as possible on issues that may affect the tribes."
She cited the work done between the state and the tribes to vaccinate members during the COVID-19 pandemic as an example of how government-to-government consultation can benefit everyone. The tribes not only vaccinated their members but also employees, their family members and members of the surrounding communities across the state, even if those relationships were sometimes strained.
"We're all in this together, like a spiderweb, we're connected," said Faron Jackson Sr., tribal chair of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.State House Speaker Melissa Hortman mandated state-tribal relations training for every member of the chamber in 2019. In October, more than three dozen representatives traveled to the Fortune Bay Resort Casino in northern Minnesota for a two-day tribal relations training hosted by the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa.
They learned about sovereignty, the history of federal Indian policy, the differences among the Minnesota tribal nations and issues where the tribes and state might disagree. In one session, members heard about the horrors some experienced in Indian boarding schools in Minnesota.
"I think that we as a country struggle to live up to our ideals, the struggle continues over time," said Hortman, a Democrat from Brooklyn Park. "As we've had this racial reckoning after George Floyd's murder, we're getting better at addressing structural racism. It's not fast enough, but we're getting better."
Rep. Heather Keeler, DFL-Moorhead, a citizen of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, said having more Native representation in state government has helped bring these issues to the forefront. At the Capitol, she said, lawmakers often say they have support from tribes, even though they've only consulted with a single group.
Keeler said an important test during the next legislative session will be a push to legalize sports betting, which many tribes remain opposed to.
"As a legislator, sometimes we sit at the table and somebody will make a statement about what the tribes are saying, and the members just go with that," she said. "In the training, what they heard from our tribal members were, why don't you just come talk to us? We are 11 sovereign nations; we have different viewpoints."
While Native leaders are encouraged by the changes, they still struggle to trust the government after more than a century of broken promises. Both sides said they expect some growing pains.
"This is just a start. It's going to be hard," said Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, a descendant of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. She said tribal leaders will be watching for state agencies to follow through. "I want you to be humble, because we are going to call you out."
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