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In praise of good governance — and good relationships

While Gov. Tim Walz’s administration is working hard to repair past relationships with tribes, some counties are doing the opposite — trying to divide us.

Recently I attended the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council Meeting (MIACM). That meeting, which convened the elected tribal leaders of the 11 Dakota and Anishinaabe nations in Minnesota, is quarterly and is also a time when Native governments meet with state agencies within the state government. What I saw made me proud to be in Minnesota today. That’s because agencies were talking to tribal governments collectively, giving updates on programs that concern Dakota and Anishinaabe people and reporting on collaborations. That’s the way things should work. After all, we all drink the same water, breathe the same air, so we should talk.

While Gov. Tim Walz’s administration is working hard to repair past relationships with tribes, some counties, particularly Mille Lacs County and pro-pipeline state representatives, are doing the opposite — trying to divide us. In particular, a recent reaffirmation of Mille Lacs reservation boundaries by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison displeased some county officials in the deep north, and HF 2241 and SF 2011 would in fact criminalize water protectors, making it a felony to exercise First Amendment rights.

Constant interactions

It’s best to work together for good governance and good community. Tribal and state agencies interact all the time, from tribal licensing to natural resource management, gaming compacts and health and human services. The fact is that we are all intending to work for the collective good of the people who live here, omaa akiing, here on this land. I want to thank Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan for strengthening these bonds.

At the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC), Flanagan met with the tribes, followed by representatives from every state agency, in a remarkable show of cooperation and good governance. A very regal retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page shared with the tribes his charity work; Wayzeytawin and other traditional Dakota women came to talk about land that they had been able to get returned to the Dakota people. They also asked for support from the MIAC to secure an exemption from state building codes for indigenous housing and building structures. All good work.

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The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council also unanimously passed a resolution opposing HF 2241 and SF 2011, which would increase penalties for “protests near pipelines and critical public service facilities.” Called the anti-protest bill, this legislation mirrors similar legislation (the anti-rioting act) that South Dakota’s governor signed in 2019, only to have the federal court overturn the law as unconstitutional. In a concerted effort, the fossil fuel industry put these bills into rapid circulation, often using the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Koch, Marathon Petroleum, Enbridge, and their trade associations lobbied for similar bills in Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin. The Wisconsin bill passed.

Huge donations to influence government

In total, Enbridge, Koch, Marathon Petroleum, their subsidiaries, and their trade associations have spent a combined $17,473,500 in 2017 and 2018 to influence the Minnesota government. The 17 co-sponsors of HF 2241 and SF 2011 received a total of $25,285 in political contributions from oil, gas, electric utility, and railroad companies. Each of these industries is named in the bill’s definitions of “critical public service facility,” “pipeline,” or “utility.” The bills pose serious threats to First Amendment rights.

It’s not that the Ojibwe and people of Minnesota have not tried every recourse to make Minnesota government work for the people here, not a Canadian corporation. More than 68,000 people came out and testified against the proposed Enbridge Line 3 pipeline vs. only just over 3,000 supporters for the project. Yet the Minnesota PUC in early February once again approved all the permits for Line 3, forcing the tribes and citizens of Minnesota once again to revert to the courts and hope for the best.

In the meantime, this past month two major pipeline projects did not move ahead. The New York Constitution Pipeline was canceled, and the Jordan Cove Pipeline is on the regulatory rocks. Perhaps more significant is the ongoing opposition to the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline in British Columbia, facing major opposition by tribal people, and blockades across Canada on the rails. Finally, the single largest new proposed tar sands mine project — the TECK Frontier Mine — died in late February; TECK Resources pulled the plug on the project, referring to climate change and economics as the justification.

Knute Nelson’s politics

In the meantime, some things change and some do not. A hundred years ago, Knute Nelson’s politics ruled the state. That’s to say that Nelson was first a senator and then the l2th governor of Minnesota. He’s most well known for promoting the Nelson Act of l889, which was intended to force all the Anishinaabe to White Earth, and also to allot the lands. As former Mille Lacs Tribal DNR commissioner and historian Don Wedll explains, “Knute Nelson used political power to amass fortunes, protect fortunes, and to undermine Anishinaabe people.” That’s the old Minnesota politic. That politic continued for almost a century and involved economic, education, political, legal, and regulatory discrimination.

Honor the Earth
Winona LaDuke
In fact, while attempting to campaign at White Earth, Nelson was actually thrown off the podium by the White Earth people. Nelson’s statue still stands tall today at the Minnesota Capital, reminding us of an era of exploitation of Native people, which should be, frankly, long over. Perhaps it is time to put a great indigenous leader of Minnesota at the Capital: Art Gahbow, Roger Jourdain and Marge Anderson are some that come to mind, in the more contemporary moment; there are many from the century before.

Walz and Ellison reaffirmed the boundaries of the Mille Lacs reservation in late February, acknowledging decades of state policy and regulatory authority. In the meantime, Mille Lacs County refuses to cooperate with the Mille Lacs band on many issues, most particularly law enforcement, and the lack of coordination has frankly created a nightmare.

The county’s lack of cooperation means that a number of non-Native individuals have come onto the reservation in recent years, often peddling dangerous drugs, and the Mille Lacs band has been unable to arrest those individuals, while the county has essentially stood by. As opioid deaths continue to rise in the north, it would really be time to cooperate. Instead, it appears that Mille Lacs County is digging in, with Traci LeBrun, the editor of the Mille Lacs Messenger, noting in an editorial, “Without meeting with the officials of Mille Lacs County, Gov. Walz chose to support Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s official opinion regarding the disputed boundaries of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Reservation. Not only did Gov. Walz not meet with county officials, as they have been requesting for months, but he chose to drive right past the Mille Lacs Historic Courthouse located just blocks off of Hwy. 169 and proceed to the recent State of the Band Address.”

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Instead, one might note that this governor for the first time is making a clear effort to work with the tribal citizens upon whose land Minnesota is built. In the meantime, Mille Lacs County Attorney Randy Thompson (a former member of the anti-Indian organization PERM, and later an attorney for Enbridge) continues to rage against tribal laws and people, most recently, misinterpreting the decision in the Todd Thompson Gull Lake fishing case. In short, the intent is not reconciliation and cooperation, it’s new Indian Wars.

At the close of the day, we are all pretty closely related and we certainly drink the same water and breathe the same air. I am grateful to the Walz administration for a willingness to work with the tribal governments. The time of Knute Nelson is over; the time of Walz and Flanagan is here.

Author, speaker and First Nations leader Winona LaDuke is the co-founder and executive director of Honor The Earth, a Minnesota-based environmental justice organization led by indigenous women, dedicated to protecting indigenous homelands and resources, and empowering communities with energy independence through renewables. 

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