'Do you see us?’ Minnesota tribal leaders drive discussion at Capitol

Minnesota tribal leaders pose for a portrait
Minnesota tribal leaders came to the State Capitol for Sovereignty Day on Monday.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

A unique gathering Monday at Minnesota’s Capitol — part history lesson, part plea for awareness — gave leaders of 11 federally-recognized Indian tribes the focused attention of state lawmakers on issues of significance.

They all had time to address a joint session of the Legislature to reflect on the tribal presence in Minnesota while asking state leaders to include them in shaping laws affecting their members rather than have decisions imposed on them.

“We see you everyday. But do you see us?” said Kevin Dupuis, chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. “We're not invisible. We know we're not invisible. But sometimes the system looks at us or puts it in a perspective that we are invisible.”

This wasn’t the Legislature’s first Sovereignty Day, but it’s the first time both the House and Senate both participated. Most other items of session business were put on hold for the day.

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Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, said the goal is to “validate the unique status of the Minnesota tribal nations and their right to existence, self governance and self determination.”

“We also recognize a significant benefit of working together, learning about one another and partnering where possible for the very best outcomes for our state, our communities and the tribes,” she said. 

House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, said she hoped the conversations would allow all involved to develop deeper understandings.

“Even if you aren't located near one of the tribal governments, we all have constituents who have direct or indirect ties to our tribal nations,” she said.

The joint session opened with a traditional drum circle and flag presentation. The gallery was full of spectators from the tribal communities, some in native dress.

The tribal leaders touched on issues related to criminal justice, education, the environment and gambling. With expanded gambling again on the Legislature’s agenda, they implored lawmakers to maintain tribal exclusivity around gambling granted to them in perpetual compacts negotiated and signed a few decades ago.

Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community Vice Chair Cole Miller said it’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed now.

“It is one of the priorities to respectfully request — or insist — that the state of Minnesota enact no law or policy that diminishes or hurts any tribe’s gaming enterprises,” he said.

He wasn’t the only tribal leader to reference the gambling debate in their remarks. A sports betting bill currently being discussed would permit the activity but only in association with tribal casinos. Some lawmakers want to allow licensing of other entities.

“These are self-sustaining economies created solely by our right to exist as sovereign people. Because of that many Minnesotans have benefitted from our ability to successfully maintain those operations,” said Upper Sioux Community Chair Kevin Jensvold. “I hope you will always consider that.”

There were breakout sessions on tribal casinos, law enforcement on reservations and considerations around cannabis legalization. Lawmakers and tribal officials were also planning to discuss a recently passed Indian child welfare bill, which seeks to keep foster children in native settings as much as possible. And they had discussions around environmental and water  use policy.

Bois Forte Band of Chippewa Chair Cathy Chavers brought up wild rice cultivation as another example of a cultural tradition under threat. 

“It's been a struggle, it’s been a challenge because a lot of the things, the decisions that are made within these walls, and throughout the Senate and House, affect us as tribal people,” Chavers said. “I'm very happy to be here and see our Senate and House together to hear about who we are as tribal people.”