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Tribal leaders mark historic moment, painful past at 'Sovereignty Day' at the Capitol

For the first time tribal leaders were asked to speak with Minnesota lawmakers about their history, top concerns.

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Shelley Buck, president of the Prairie Island Indian Community, speaks as part of a panel discussion on Sovereignty Day in the Minnesota House of Representatives on Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. Dana Ferguson / FORUM NEWS SERVICE
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ST. PAUL — Representatives from each of the 11 American Indian tribes in Minnesota on Monday, Feb. 18, gave state legislators a refresher course on the history of Indigenous people in the state and asked that they keep them in mind when writing laws.

It was the first time in more than a decade that lawmakers turned over the House of Representatives for an intensive session on an issue. And it was the first time all 11 tribes were invited to speak in that chamber.

The event titled Sovereignty Day coincided with Presidents Day. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the timing was chosen with that coincidence in mind.

"It was very intentional to recognize there is this sovereignty that existed before we had the United States of America as we know it today," Hortman said. "Now it's on us to respond to and respect what we heard."

Tribal leaders acknowledged they were glad to be part of the historic day, but said they felt conflicted about coming to the Capitol building, a symbol of loss and oppression for the Dakota people. They urged lawmakers to understand and acknowledge the sacrifices of Indigenous people.

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"We are standing on Dakota property," Shelley Buck, president of the Prairie Island Indian Community said. "This is Dakota land, my ancestors' homeland."

The leaders said the dialogue was a constructive first step in establishing a deeper understanding of each tribe's perspectives on different issues and they urged lawmakers to keep tribal leaders involved in policymaking, to visit each tribe and to keep Indigenous history in mind.

“It’s hard for us to stand up here and not talk about all the injustices that happened to our people but also, it’s important that we bridge the gap and you guys understand what we’ve gone through as Native people,” Sam Strong, Secretary of the Red Lake Nation, said. "All of you did not create these wrongs but it’s important to recognize the wrongs of the past if we mean to correct them, if we mean to move forward in a good way.”

He pointed to disparities in education, economic prosperity and health outcomes that stemmed from the failure of the federal government to adequately enforce its treaty obligations to American Indian tribes.

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said she and Gov. Tim Walz hoped their budget, which is set to be made public Tuesday, could reduce some of those disparities. Flanagan, the highest-ranking Indigenous woman elected to statewide office in the United States, said the administration planned to consult leaders of each tribe before proposing state budgets moving forward.

She said the budget would include dollars for tribal schools, boosting holistic therapies for parents who are incarcerated, funding the creation of a task force for missing and murdered indigenous women and supporting the use of traditional healers to address the opioid crisis.

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, represents the district that encompasses the Lower Sioux Community. He said the forum was helpful to learn about other tribes and the issues that face their members. He said the state should consider ways to maintain relations with tribal leaders on an ongoing basis.

"Taking the tribes' needs and concerns into the process is valid and worthwhile," Torkelson said. "I think it behooves all of us."

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Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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