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Equality and equity for ‘the asterisk nation’: a Q&A with Patrice Kunesh

Kunesh, who founded the organization Pehin Haha to advocated for Native communities, is delivering the keynote address at this week’s Center for Economic Inclusion’s virtual event, “2020 Powering Inclusion Summit, Marching For Racial Equity and Economic Justice.

With a history of colonialism, broken treaties and genocide, the Native American community in Minnesota has a long and troubled relationship with the State of Minnesota and the United States government when it comes to economic policy, equality, and equity. 

Patrice Kunesh
Patrice Kunesh
Which is where Patrice Kunesh comes in. “Across the board, we’re seeing a real increase in Native scholars, in terms of economics, and history, and political science, and they’re out there really telling the story,” said Kunesh, a Boulder, Colorado-based law, policy, and economic development consultant who is a descendent of the Standing Rock Lakota tribe, and a founder of the advocacy organization Pehin Haha. “When I go on Twitter or Facebook they’re really bringing their work alive and more out to the community.”

The founder and former leader of the Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Kunesh will deliver the keynote address at the Center for Economic Inclusion’s virtual event, “2020 Powering Inclusion Summit, Marching For Racial Equity and Economic Justice,” this week. The title of Kunesh‘s address is “Native Economic Renaissance, Inclusive Growth, and ‘Something Else,’” in reference to the election night CNN demographic chart that referred to Native Americans as “Something Else.”

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MinnPost spoke with Kunesh on Thanksgiving eve.

MinnPost: How do you commemorate Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Month

Patrice Kunesh: Oh, my goodness. Well, professionally, I’ve been doing a lot of engagements with groups. I just did one last week, for example, in North Carolina; another one in Kentucky, and absolutely recognizing the history and sort of right-sizing knowledge, and perspectives about where this all came from. Obviously this land is indigenous land, and even this form of governance here, this democracy that we’re all struggling to protect, is based on the native way, the indigenous way, of council-meeting and community-centered governance. 

I also look at the course of colonialism and the chaos and damages that have been caused by the colonial rule like the loss of land, the forced assimilation, the forced out-migration from some real historical damage and trauma. But I also am really, really proud of the resilience and vibrancy of our Native nations and the progress that we have made economically and socially, and sort of an appeal to make sure that we’re not invisible. There’s so many ways we dismiss or overlook indigenous people in data and in many different ways. And oftentimes we think of Native people in terms of an “ouch” thing, or a heritage thing, but we’re very much alive and vibrant and a very distinctively important component of our society and economy. 

MP: On election night, the CNN graphic that labeled Native Americans with the catch-all “Something Else” was unbelievable: From First Americans to…“Something Else.” What was your reaction?

PK: We often call ourselves “the asterisk nation.” It’s that asterisk in the report, or the footnote at the bottom of the page preceded by an asterisk that says, “This doesn’t include Native American people because they’re such a small, insignificant part of the data set.” And when you go back in and look at whatever is the subject you realize that, “Oh my gosh there’s a crazy disproportionate impact on this particular community.”

So I’ve been very much a part of making the invisible visible, making sure that Native people are part of the conversation up front and center, and letting people know that Native American Heritage Month is not about the past, it’s about the present and the possibility of the future. So when I saw this “Something Else,” like I said, I just couldn’t believe this sort of characterization. First, I thought it was terribly dismissive and disrespectful. But then you realize the outcome of the elections, and you can see that “Something Else” really made a difference

And that was native people [voting] in Wisconsin, in New Mexico, in Arizona, in Nevada. So this dismissiveness and this disrespect of overlooking our people is really wrong-minded for a number of different ways. But I want to turn that around and say “Something Else” is really good and should be looked at more closely, and the impact is pretty powerful. My grandfather was born on a reservation in North Dakota in 1903. And at that time, Native people were not even considered citizens of the United States. They were considered too heathen, too savage, and too poor. And it wasn’t until 1924, when Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act when we fully became citizens and entitled to vote.

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But it wasn’t until 1965 with the Voting Rights Act when we were fully enfranchised to participate in the political process. So there’s bigger, greater meanings here with this particular election and this “Something Else” category, to really appreciate that, despite all the obstacles, at every turn to suppress the Native vote, Native people got out there and did their civic duty and they made a big difference. 

MP: Along the same lines, (activist, author, and two-time Green Party vice-presidential candidate) Winona LaDuke recently told The New York Times that “I’ve seen a growing awareness, a wake-up, to the systemic oppression of people of color. There is a movement toward justice for Native people. People want to listen.” Has that been true for you, and what is your gauge of that?

PK: I don’t know where she’s seeing an uptick, but I can say that, across the board, we’re seeing a real increase in Native scholars in terms of economics, and history, and political science and they’re out there really telling the story. When I go on Twitter or Facebook they’re really bringing their work alive and more out to the community. And they’re really testing us on concepts in terms of individuality, in terms of philanthropy, in terms of our role and participation in the economy. So maybe she’s reflecting that there’s more information out there. Behind that, though, I think we’re seeing some tremendous higher education achievement and Native people really being able to find their voice and they’re expressing all of this in a wonderful way. 

MP: Where did you grow up in when did you first get interested in the path you’re on? Meaning, what struck you early on in your life about economics, equity and equality that was unique to Indian Country?

PK: My mother and grandfather, both from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, very much instilled in us the privilege of being part of this Native community and the rich but also harsh story of our family; the struggle, right? And like I was saying, my grandfather was very, very, very, very poor, and early on his mother, being a single mother and raising children on her own on the reservation, realized that she needed something more secure. So she moved her family to St. Paul, Minnesota.

There was, at that time, as you can only imagine, a lot of discrimination against Native people and they found a community with other Native people. And it was a real struggle to make ends meet for both my grandmother and my grandfather, so that’s sort of a story that has carried with me. My grandfather actually had to go to Alaska to find work on the Alaskan Canadian highway. But growing up, I’m the middle child of 13, and we didn’t have a lot, and we often had to make do and so I’ve always felt a sense of economic tension. To everything, poverty has been the backdrop, and “Why are some people poorer than others?” and “Why do other people have opportunities that we don’t?”

My father was a lawyer. He was a county attorney and a city attorney in St. Cloud. I grew up in Sartell, and he worked with Native tribes, Native organizations, Native people through the Youth Conservation Commission. He was on the parole board of the St. Cloud State Penitentiary, and he saw the over-abundance of Native men in the penitentiary, and this was the beginning of the American Indian Movement. There was a pipeline from the streets of St. Paul and Minneapolis to the St. Cloud State Penitentiary, so he was working with the Native youth to get some good programs going to engage with their communities, and then at the St. Cloud State Penitentiary, he started a vocational program so that the young Native men could come out and have a job, have a skill, and not go back to the streets and repeat all that again. 

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I could see my father’s work in the Native community and the real impact with that kind of involvement, but really it was when I got to law school and I was on the law review writing an article, really researching something, and I’ve always been committed to social justice; I think I got that my parents, as well. I started looking at the Indian Civil Rights Act, but then I really gravitated to the Indian Child Welfare Act, and I was just drawn in about thousands and thousands of children being removed from their families, and sent to boarding schools or white families, and being totally removed from their culture, from their people, from their place. And I told my mom I was going to write about ICWA, and support tribal sovereignty and the right as a Native child who grew up knowing her culture and her people and so forth. When I told my mother I was really interested in this, she actually became upset or distressed. She felt really bad about the conditions on Indian reservations because she was concerned about children growing up in poverty. 

Well, anyways, I decided to write this. This article was published, and it was well received. I got a fellowship to work for the Native American Rights Fund. And that really launched my career in Indian law, as we say, and really try to dig in deep to fight for the rights and fight for justice for our First Americans. Along the way, of course, it all comes back to the economics of sovereignty, of using the land, of making the reservation homelands a welcoming place and a place to do business. 

My sister Mary Kunesh is a state legislator in the House of Representatives, and she was just elected to the Senate, and she really raised the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women in a big way. And, again, these stories are all very personal. There’s not any issue that hasn’t touched all of us in a very personal way when we look at our aunties and grandmothers and sisters and cousins.

Treasure Island Casino
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Treasure Island Casino, owned by the Mdewakanton tribe of Prairie Island, has been closed since April. “We've seen COVID hit Indian Country harder—it’s shut down their economy, and more cases per population, and more fatalities,” said Patrice Kunesh.
MP: When and why did you found Pehin Haha, and is the focus different now from when you started?

PK: I started Pehin Haha conceptually, maybe about two years ago and, operationally, in the past 12 months. I established the Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis to really put together a think-tank and to look at Indian Country through the lens of economics and the data, and we really, really dove in deep on a lot of the issues. We dealt with police interactions with Native people and fatal encounters. We looked at mortgage lending and discrimination. There’s a lot of philanthropic engagement and NGO engagement in these issues, and there’s a lot of policy and politics involved, and I wanted to be able to engage in that full spectrum of conversation. I wanted to engage more directly in the community, and with the organizations that are really putting their funding to work. I like doing things; I like building and creating things, and this gives me the opportunity to have that kind of engagement.

MP: How has the pandemic impacted Indian Country?

PK: Oh my gosh. It’s been really, really hard. Tribal nations oversee every aspect of their communities, so tribes that have businesses like gaming enterprises; individuals on the reservation that support that whole range of business sector… Everything was completely shut down. And not only is the tribal government the revenue generator, they also provide essential services to their citizens, right?

So, it’s shutting down their economy. They were also cutting off the lifeline to many of these essential services, and on so many reservations—and I know Red Lake is under complete lockdown right now — they’ve been hit really hard because there’s a lot of health vulnerabilities, and there’s not a lot of ready services to address health care and so forth. So we’ve seen COVID hit Indian Country harder — more cases per population, and more fatalities. It’s because houses are overcrowded, and people don’t have this opportunity to socially distance, they’re not able to drive to get services like health care, and the kind of health care they have in their communities is very, very basic. It just cannot address the extreme needs of COVID. And there’s a lot of food insecurity. So, we’re starting with a very vulnerable population and the resources are just not there to support. COVID has been terribly, terribly hard.

So that’s one part of it. And then, accessing the COVID Relief Fund has been a big challenge for Native people because the Treasury had some bad data, they didn’t know how to distribute this, they funded some tribes but not the others. It was very complicated and very confusing. So COVID has really disrupted so many things, but the next issue that we have to deal with is how do we get relief, how do we get these resources, and then, how do we build back a community that’s stronger and more resilient? 

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I did a presentation at the Brookings Institution last year about this time on jobs. The job market in reservations is highly concentrated in two areas, the gaming and entertainment sector. And that’s been very good, economically speaking. Lots of jobs, right? And it’s also been over-represented in the public administration for the government services. We have high concentration of jobs in these two sectors. And what happened with COVID? We shut down the businesses, and we shut down the government. We’ve created this very, very vulnerable population again, susceptible to economic challenges because of no jobs.

So as we think about the future of rebuilding a “New Renaissance,” as I’m thinking of it, we have to diversify the economies and jobs and tribal governments and we certainly need to encourage and bring in the private sector, the entrepreneurs and private businesses, to balance that market share and job share. We need to create a very socially inclusive economy, and this goes for states, and it goes to the federal government, it goes through the county. One of the things we’re going to tackle first, obviously, will be business development so that we can get the economic engines going. But we can’t forget about people. The most important part of the economy is the human capital, and as we’ve found out, we’re very fragile in some respects. But it’s the long-term investments we make in our people and in our community that’s going to carry us forward for another 250-300 years. 

MP: What will be the main message of your keynote address?

PK: I’m trying to pull all of this together to show that, before the pandemic, tribes were the 13th largest employer in the United States, collectively, the 13th largest employer and a distinctively important component of our economy. And most of these dollars generated on the reservation were spent off the reservation right in local communities and rural communities. So my pitch, or my dream, my vision is that we have this economic renaissance where we diversify our economies and invest in our children, regionally and statewide. We’re all improving, we all succeed, and we all are making great strides toward shared prosperity.