The state will spend millions each year on tribal contract schools. A Missing and Murdered indigenous Women Task Force starts meeting this summer. And American Indian communities get $2 million a year for traditional healing to combat opioid addiction.
“Usually to get one or two things passed that deal with tribes is an accomplishment. But to have this many bills go through that affect tribes positively is phenomenal,” said Prairie Island Indian Community Tribal Council President Shelley Buck. She spoke last week as she emerged from a ceremonial bill signing where Gov. Tim Walz affirmed that her community’s tribal police don’t need county approval to enforce the law.
Five months ago, Walz took office with Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, the first indigenous woman to hold statewide office in Minnesota.
The new administration promised partnership with tribes. The candidates visited each of the state’s 11 tribal nations on the campaign trail, something tribal leaders said had never been done. In speeches, Walz often talked about tribal communities as a barometer for Minnesotans’ well-being — saying if they are doing well, then so is the rest of the state.
But both Flanagan and Walz have said American Indian residents are rightfully skeptical.
“Native people have not had a positive relationship interacting with state, federal and, in many ways local, government,” Flanagan said. “And so I think a lot of folks are like, ‘Show me.’ … The proof has to be both in policy, in executive orders and also in the budget.”
Tribal government leaders, American Indian legislators and advocates said that so far the new administration appears to be living up to its vow.
In addition to budget and policy changes that came out of the legislative session, Walz issued an executive order aimed at improving the partnership between state and tribal governments.
The governor gathered with community members at the Lower Sioux Indian Reservation earlier this month to ceremonially sign the order. Walz told tribal leaders there that he doesn’t want to do anything to or for them; he wants to work with them.
By the end of this month, all state agencies must complete policies to ensure they consult with tribal nations on decisionmaking. The order expands on a similar effort during former Gov. Mark Dayton’s time in office but adds new requirements. Every state agency must have a tribal liaison. All agency leaders and employees whose work is likely to affect tribal nations must attend training on tribal-state relations.
Red Lake Nation Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki Sr. said he was encouraged by the gathering. But he would also like all state agency commissioners to meet with each tribe. And he hopes Walz holds a roundtable with tribes’ leadership, as Dayton did.
Tribal leaders have said there seems to be more “two-way communication” with the new administration, said LeRoy Staples Fairbanks, the new executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. He said state employees and leadership seem to be getting into the habit of making an informal call to tribal governments to get their thoughts as they start work on new ideas.
The challenge will be ensuring that engagement with tribes becomes part of how state government operates, he said, and not something that is easily eliminated when a new governor takes office.
On Presidents’ Day this year, the Minnesota House did something it never had before. It invited leaders from the 11 tribes to address lawmakers at a “Sovereignty Day” event. They shared their histories and current challenges.
It laid a foundation for the lawmaking that followed, Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, said. She worked on a new law requiring that when the state sells property it owns within a reservation boundary, it must first offer to sell it to the tribe.
“It’s probably an incredibly historic year for Native American legislation,” said Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, who fought for the creation of the task force to look into the deaths and disappearances of indigenous women. After two years of advocacy, the state devoted $150,000 for that effort and is in the midst of forming the group.
Becker-Finn and Kunesh-Podein credited their former House colleague, Flanagan, with using her new executive branch power to press for many of the bills that will touch American Indians in Minnesota.
It’s not just specific tribe-focused legislation that is important, said Patina Park, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. The social and economic challenges Minnesotans face affect American Indian communities more intensely, she said. Lawmakers need to continue to work on affordable housing, financial support for needy families and reducing barriers for people with criminal histories, Park said.
Park and several tribal leaders said Flanagan has a deep personal understanding of challenges native communities face, and both she and Walz had built relationships with many community leaders before the campaign started. So when they announced their candidacy, leaders like Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin were immediately on board and endorsed the pair.
Their relationships and voter support could face tests in the years ahead as they contend with issues such as the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline, copper-nickel mining and legalization of sports betting, which could affect casinos or land culturally important to tribes.
Bois Forte Chairwoman Cathy Chavers said the Walz administration’s approach to protecting wild rice from industrial pollutants bodes well. The administration reached out to tribes early on about the development of a Wild Rice Stewardship Council, an idea recommended by a Dayton-era task force. Walz, Flanagan and tribal leaders met to talk about it. Flanagan said they heard about the need to protect wild rice and the desire to be consulted on the front end.
“We’re not always going to agree, and that’s just the reality of politics,” she said. But when state leaders understand treaty rights and have respectful conversations, she said, “That allows us to — even if we have disagreements — arrive at a place where people feel good about the result.”
Legislation to form the stewardship council did not make it out of end-of-session negotiations, and Flanagan said they need to continue consulting with tribes on that issue.
“Having Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan in that position, educating the governor and helping him … and his administration understand tribes and what tribal sovereignty means and what all these things mean to us, is — you can’t even buy anything better than that,” said Buck, with the Prairie Island Indian Community.
Flanagan’s presence also sends an inspiring message to young American Indian women, Benjamin said.
Flanagan doesn’t forget that power.
She often ends speeches with “chi-miigwech,” thanking her audience in Ojibwe. And in the governor’s reception room, where news conferences are held and school tour groups congregate, there are three flags: the Stars and Stripes, Minnesota’s flag and that of the White Earth Nation.