Educate. Educate. Educate.
Former Chief Executive, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe
I was recently invited to speak to a group of educators about tribal governance. Most of their questions were about sovereignty. They wanted to know what tribal sovereignty is. They wanted to know how we exercise it. They genuinely wanted to understand. When I explained that, as tribes, we exercise sovereignty when we actively assume governance over our own communities, they began to understand its importance. These educators began to understand our desire to write our own laws, to work to ensure that these laws are recognized, and to live according to them.
I seek out opportunities to educate others about tribal sovereignty and I hope that those I educate will communicate their understanding to others. During my tenure as chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, I came to realize that the misunderstanding of sovereignty is a seed of anti-Indian sentiment throughout the United States. Individuals who don’t understand tribal sovereignty feel threatened by it and by those tribes that exercise it. Our only effective defense against such anti-Indian sentiment is education. We must assume the responsibility to educate others about sovereignty. We must educate local governments, state governments, and even the federal government. We must educate on both sides of the aisle. We must educate every new legislator entering office. We must educate every 2 years. Educate. Educate. Educate.
I have seen persistent efforts at education succeed. During my tenure, our tribe had a good relationship with the state legislature. The legislature invited us to speak to them about tribal, state, and federal relationships. As we took the opportunity to educate them about issues that were important to us, we made progress. We also worked at the regional and national levels. I founded the Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes to make sure that the interests of tribes from Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa were heard in Washington. During our annual impact week, we found that by knocking on the doors of those who had voted against our interests, we could change minds. Many of those individuals simply didn’t know anything about Indians. They voted against us without knowing anything about us. In this forum, too, education was effective. I also founded the National Unity Caucus. The caucus allows tribes to donate funds to individuals who support our interests. The success of these individuals in public service promotes an understanding of tribal sovereignty.
Our efforts at education are important because our sovereignty is important. Tribes succeed when we control our own resources to meet our own needs. Several years ago, the Mille Lacs studied the funds that the federal government appropriated for tribes. We learned that only 14 cents of every dollar reached us. That meant that 86 cents out of every dollar were lost in the layers of bureaucracy from the central office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the area agencies. Not only were administrators taking most of the money that was supposed to be ours, but they were also making the decisions about how the balance of that money should be spent. This wasn’t right. We knew our needs better than Washington. We knew that we didn’t need another government telling us how to spend our money. We knew that by directing our funds to meet our own needs, we could make improvements in our people’s lives.
The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe became one of the first tribes to compact for federal dollars and our tribe is still unified in its commitment to self-governance. When we told our people what was happening to the funds that were appropriated for us by Congress, we also told them we could do better. We became one of seven tribes involved in an early federal project that demonstrated the effectiveness of self-governance. We have taken control of our resources and have provided better services than the federal government ever provided. We have gone around or through the roadblocks the federal government imposed in order to offer these improved services to our people.
We have defended our sovereignty not only in our relationship with the federal government, but also in our interactions with the state. Tribes must work with states when federal funds or federal programs are administered through states. This doesn’t mean, however, that we are subordinate to states. Tribes and states must preserve a government-to-government relationship. In Minnesota, Public Law 280 states that tribes and the state have concurrent jurisdiction. However, in the 1970s, Minnesota worded their contracts with us in such a way that required us to waive our sovereign immunity in order to receive funds. We refused. We refused to sign contracts for energy assistance, Head Start, chemical dependency monies, or other state-funded programs. Our people were poor. We needed those funds. It was hard to go without, but we refused to enter into contracts that signed away our sovereignty. Our determination to preserve our sovereignty protected all tribes in Minnesota. Within a few years, the legislature passed a law stating that tribes would not be required to waive their sovereign immunity in order to receive funds.
As I’ve argued, our sovereignty is worthy of defense because it is the source of our success. Regrettably, that success itself often generates real resistance. When the Mille Lacs were poor, the fact of our sovereignty didn’t seem to matter. However, as the exercise of our sovereignty has resulted in increased economic and political influence, those who don’t understand our sovereignty have begun to see it as a serious threat. As a result, our relationships with other governments have become troubled. In the 1990s, the state of Minnesota challenged our rights—rights guaranteed through our 1837 Treaty—to fish and gather. Although we worked towards a solution through the Department of Natural Resources and even agreed to a limitation of our rights in order to avoid the confrontations that Wisconsin tribes had experienced during their treaty rights battles, the state legislature rejected our proposal. We had no choice but to take the state to court. We won every step of the way—from the district court, through the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, to the Supreme Court—but that success only increased resentments. Soon afterwards, Mille Lacs County began its challenge of our reservation boundaries. Although the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has dismissed their case, I find myself wondering what will happen next.
Such battles hurt us; they also hurt the county and state. I hope that these other governments will begin to recognize the benefits that the exercise of our sovereignty offers them. Since we opened our first casino in 1991, we’ve taken many of our people off the welfare roles. We’ve also generated nearly 3,000 jobs for non-Indians. This deserves celebration. Regrettably, too often our best efforts are not only ignored, but actually thwarted. While I was in office, I secured nearly $9 million for a wastewater treatment plan that would have served our reservation and nearby townships while preventing sewage from leaking into Lake Mille Lacs. Our interest—an interest that I know we shared with the county and state—was in cleaning up the lake. However, a few legislators blocked our efforts. I’m not even sure that I understood what their issues were. Too often the issue that thwarts such efforts is fear.
Of course, we can’t merely rely on our hope that other governments will begin to recognize the benefits that good tribal governance accrues. I can’t stress enough how important it is that we break the cycle of fear ourselves through education. As tribes’ economic and political resources increase, we must dedicate some of these resources to educating others. This is already making a difference at the national level. While I was in office, I studied congressional voting patterns and knew that we needed advocates. As a result, we were instrumental in starting the Native American Caucus. When I left office, that caucus had nearly 100 members from both sides of the aisle. An understanding of tribal sovereignty was a condition for joining. Tribal leaders across the country must make a difference in their individual communities. Through meetings with state legislators and through their local and regional organizations, they must promote understanding.
Their efforts may be more welcome than they expect. Years ago, when I was attending a meeting of the National Congress of American Indians in California, I was invited to meet a group of new legislators. At the end of our conversation they thanked me. They thanked me for talking to them. They thanked me for telling them about who we are, what we are about, and what we hope for. We must create such opportunities for understanding. It is the source of our hope and it is the antidote to others’ fears.
Reprinted from The State of the Native Nations by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.
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