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Newly elected state representative Susan Allen (DFL-district 61B) was sworn in by Judge Robert Blaeser at the State Capitol Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 in St. Paul, MN,

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Lori Sturdevant: Many issues at the Capitol, but one is especially poignant

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT
  • Star Tribune
  • January 21, 2012 - 3:40 PM

State Rep. Susan Allen will be the object of long looks when the Legislature commences this year's business on Tuesday -- and not just because she's the newbie.

The south Minneapolis DFLer, an attorney elected in a Jan. 10 special election, is the state's first-ever female American Indian legislator. She arrives at a portentous point in the long, never-easy relationship between Minnesota's indigenous and nonindigenous populations.

For one thing: This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Dakota War. That's an episode in state history too formative to ignore and too ugly to examine without pain.

A few years ago this column referred to the events in the Minnesota River valley in the summer of 1862. Reader response revealed that the famous William Faulkner line about the South -- "the past isn't over; it isn't even past" -- applies to Minnesota, too.

A mini-war erupted in my e-mail box, with descendents of people on each side of the conflict claiming that their side remains misunderstood and that facts remain in dispute.

(A passing aside to the Minnesota Historical Society and anyone else planning to publicly commemorate this year's sad sesquicentennial: Good luck.)

Allen, 48, is a member of the Yankton Sioux tribe. Some of her ancestors were in Minnesota during the Dakota War.

I hope I'm standing watch sometime this session when she walks past the portrait of Gov. Alexander Ramsey, who ordered in the war's wake that Sioux Indians be "driven forever beyond the borders of the state."

Take that, Bluff Alec! Minnesota became an inclusive state in spite of you!

Or did it? The extent and meaning of Minnesota's modern-day inclusion of its native people will be a subtheme during debate on one of the year's biggest questions: Will Minnesota establish new gambling casinos to fund a Vikings football stadium and, potentially, other desirable ends?

Casinos in Minnesota have been exclusively tribal for 20 years. But exclusivity, attorney Allen acknowledges, is not an explicit guarantee in the compacts that exist between the state and 11 Indian nations.

Rather, she says, there's "an understanding ... that this was to be a way to alleviate poverty among Indian people."

Twenty years of Indian gaming in Minnesota have made one small tribe, the Mdewakanton Sioux of Shakopee, famously wealthy, and others less so -- the largest Ojibwe bands considerably less so. No one can argue that tribal poverty has been vanquished in this state.

Ideas abound this year for giving tribal casinos some competition by installing state lottery-operated slot machines at racetracks, or the megamall, or the airport, or a big-white-elephant retail block in downtown Minneapolis.

I hope I'm standing watch in the press alcove when those ideas come to the House floor. If I am, I'll be watching for "the lady from Hennepin, Rep. Allen" to grab her microphone and call out "Mr. Speaker."

My guess is that at that moment, the chamber will fall strangely silent, as it does whenever members sense that history is about to be made.

Allen hasn't come to the Capitol with her speech for that moment already written, she told me last week. Though her legal practice has included providing counsel to various tribes, her political practice is much broader.

Her south Minneapolis district includes some the metro area's poorest people, but only about 800 of them are Indians. She aims to be a voice for her whole district.

On behalf of all her constituents, she plans to say, "We don't want public funding of a stadium. We have so many other unmet needs that should come first. Our communities are struggling. They need better schools, better housing, better transportation."

The gambling argument she's prepared to make now isn't about preserving tribal prerogatives. It's about her constituents' needs and vulnerabilities.

"Gaming revenues come disproportionately from low-income neighborhoods. Putting a casino a short bus ride away from some of the poorest neighborhoods we have isn't a good idea."

This argument has its defects. Someone is bound to observe that the tribes have been building casinos in proximity to their own impoverished people for two decades and calling them hope.

But, dear Someone, give Allen a little time to hone her case. She has been a legislator for only three days. And she's got 150 years of exclusion to overcome.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. 

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