Aaniin, Boozhoo! There is not enough space in the newspaper to describe all that transpired this past November. A snapshot of my schedule includes attending the Tribal Nations Opioid Summit at White Earth; meetings with many individual Band members, hold- ing two Cabinet meetings, meeting with Band Assembly; a Special TEC Meeting and also teleconferences with the U.S. D.O.J. Tribal National Leadership Council.
There was a five-day period in November, however, that was the highlight of the month and will go down in history for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Over just five days, we received a surprise two-day visit by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, the highest ranking official to ever come to the Mille Lacs Reservation; we filed a lawsuit in federal court against Mille Lacs County, Sheriff Lindgren and County Attorney Walsh; and Band Members held a rally at the State Capitol demanding justice for our community.
On November 14, Tribal Chief of Police Sara Rice was notified that officials from BIA Law Enforcement in Washington D.C. would be coming to Mille Lacs just two days later, on November 16, to discuss our public safety crisis in District I, and that Secretary Zinke would be joining them for this visit. Secretary Zinke oversees many federal agencies, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He was accompanied by BIA Director Bryan Rice, Director of BIA Office of Justice Systems Charles Addington, Chief of Staff Scott Hommel, several communications staff team, and Secret Service police.
This visit came on the heels of a recent letter sent the previous week by the Interior Department to Mille Lacs County, informing the County that it is the position of the United States that our reservation remains intact and was never diminished, and that under no circumstances should Mille Lacs County law enforcement impede our federally deputized tribal police officers from carrying out their duties to investigate crimes under federal law and inherent Band authority.
After being welcomed by District I Representative Sandra Blake and me along with about 75 Band employees, Secretary Zinke held a 90-minute meeting with elected officials, commissioners, and our legal team to discuss the current law enforcement crisis. The Secretary listened intently, and promised to do what he could to help; several ideas were discussed. He and his staff also attended our Fall Community Feast, and stayed overnight at our Eddy’s Resort. Friday morning, Secretary Zinke joined Chief Rice for a ride-along and toured neighborhoods in District I.
This was a very important visit. We had not previously invited the Secretary to the reservation; of all the tribes in the United States, he spontaneously chose to come here. As a retired Navy Seal Commander, the Secretary talked about the importance of honor and keeping one’s word, and he said he intended to honor the federal government’s commitments to the Band both via our treaties and the trust responsibility. We are keeping communication lines open and following up on those commitments. I will speak more about that at the State of the Band Address on January 9.
Also on November 16, a few hours prior to Secretary Zinke’s visit, Representative Blake offered a resolution in the Band Assembly meeting authorizing a federal lawsuit against Mille Lacs County, which passed and was signed on Friday morning. The Band filed the lawsuit late Friday afternoon in federal district court. In our complaint, we state that the County has prevented Band po- lice officers from exercising police powers within the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation, has violated federal law and is contributing to an epidemic of drug-related overdoses and deaths. We are asking the court to declare that the Band has inherent sovereign authority to establish a police department and to authorize Band police officers to investigate violations of federal, state, and tribal law within the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation as established under our 1855 Treaty. This lawsuit involves both law enforcement and our reservation boundary.
The federal legal system does not move quickly, but we felt we had no other choice than to take decisive legal action. At Governor Dayton’s request, we had agreed to attempt one last mediation session with the County, but given the County’s past behavior, as elected officials we decided we could no longer wait. We will keep the Band updated about the status of this lawsuit and scheduled court dates.
Just a few days later on Monday, November 20, about 200 Band Members and allies rallied together at the State Capitol at the “Un-Cuff Our Cops” rally, which was organized at the grassroots level by Mille Lacs Band members. This was an amazing event, and made a huge impact with regard to getting the truth of our story out to the public.
Chi Miigwech to all the Band members who helped with organizing this event, who attended and made their voices heard. The rally received widespread state and national media attention, shining a bright light on the County’s disregard of the safety of Indian people. Through this event we gained new support from Minnesota lawmakers; several have now made commitments to get involved and assist the Band in ending this crisis.
As I write this column, our mediation team just concluded the day-long mediation session on November 27 with the County, which was conducted by a retired federal magistrate. Unfortunately, like all previous mediation sessions, this one too ended without a new law enforcement agreement.
However, there is hope on the horizon. There is much work happening on this issue behind the scenes in Band government. We have made new progress due to your involvement as Band members willing to speak out. Every Band member has a powerful voice. Collectively, we have together gained new allies in our quest for justice for our community. And as Band officials we are holding all parties accountable for the commitments they have made to help us restore public safety in District I.
We will persevere, because the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe does not ever give up when it comes to protecting our families and our rights. We do not negotiate away our sovereignty or our reservation and never will.
I look forward to seeing you all at the State of the Band Address on January 9. Miigwech!