Boozhoo. This month, the United States reached a tragic milestone, with over 500,000 deaths of Americans due to COVID-19. The Mille Lacs Band has lost several Band members to this terrible disease. President Biden has ordered all U.S. flags be flown at half-staff in honor of those who have passed from COVID-19. Likewise, I have also ordered that all flags flown on Band property be at half-staff to recognize the tragic passing of our loved ones and community members.
In early February, I signed Executive Order 2021-01, authorizing the gradual reinstatement of public access to government buildings and restoration of services provided that certain safety criteria are in place, and which encourages Band members to continue remaining at home whenever possible to minimize spread of COVID-19. This Executive Order revises the previous Executive Order 2020-05 which I signed last March and which required that all within Band jurisdiction stay home except for certain activities and restricted public access to all Band buildings. I strongly encourage Band members to continue wearing masks and observe social distancing even if you have been fully vaccinated.
With the Biden Administration taking office, there has been a lot of activity at the federal level that has been a focus of my work as Chief Executive. I was heavily involved in an effort to support the selection of Congresswoman Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, as President Biden’s nominee to the position of Secretary of Interior.
Indian Country celebrated when President Biden announced Congresswoman Haaland as his nominee for this position that serves as Trustee for Indian tribes and Indian people, in addition to overseeing national parks and public lands as well as many other duties and agencies. As I write this column, Congresswoman Haaland is going through her Senate confirmation hearing process. If confirmed, she will be the first American Indian to ever serve in a Cabinet-level position in the history of the United States.
This past month I participated in numerous grassroots efforts led by Native women, tribal leaders, and environmental organizations to build support for Congresswoman Haaland. By the time this issue arrives in your mailboxes, I am hoping a vote will have been scheduled in the U.S Senate to confirm Congresswoman Haaland as Secretary of Interior.
The beginning of a new President’s administration means that most political appointees are expected to step down so the new President can appoint people to these positions that reflect his views. This month, I was honored to be asked by Senator Tina Smith and Senator Amy Klobuchar to serve on the Selection Committee to choose the next federal U.S. Attorney and U.S. Marshal for the State of Minnesota. This was a very intensive responsibility that required a series of many meetings held over a two-week period. I viewed my role on the Selection Committee to ensure that applicants for both the U.S. Attorney and the U.S. Marshal positions were asked questions that addressed their understanding of how they would serve and protect public safety for tribal communities in Minnesota.
A new round of federal assistance to support communities in fighting COVID-19 is moving through the Congress, which we are carefully monitoring to ensure that the Mille Lacs Band receives our fair share of federal funding. Last spring, during the first round of COVID relief funding, there was some confusion in the Congress and Administration regarding the status of each of the six MCT Bands as separately sovereign Indian nations entitled to our own independent share of COVID relief funds, which could have resulted in the six Bands having to share one very small allocation of COVID funds that would go to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.
This confusion was due to the way the Bureau of Indian Affairs listed the six Bands in the Federal Register. If we had not taken notice of this matter and notified our Senators, our six Bands could have collectively been short-changed hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID relief. I worked closely with Senators Smith and Klobuchar as well as Congresswoman Betty McCollum to make sure Mille Lacs was treated as a separate sovereign nation independent of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe for purposes of receiving this funding, along with the other five MCT Bands. During this current round of COVID relief discussions in the Congress, we have again taken a leading role in ensuring there is no confusion. We are hoping the Senate passes the House version of this bill in upcoming weeks.
The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC) met in February. Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan spoke with MIAC about the State’s priorities and collaboration with tribes in numerous areas, and we also heard from state commissioners about their work. At the state level, we have been working to get a bill through the State Legislature that would make it a requirement that future Governors and state agencies consult with tribal governments, as the Walz-Flanagan Administration has been doing. We also hope to make the Tribal State Relations Training permanent, which is a two-day training that Mille Lacs helped create that state employees are required to go through to learn about federal-state-tribal history and laws.
Governor Walz and Lt. Governor Flanagan also invited Speaker Boyd and I to have a Mille Lacs-only consultation meeting with them about our biggest priorities in February, which included a good discussion about COVID collaboration, making tribal consultation a state law, and other issues. We have greatly appreciated this collaborative relationship with the State.
Two important updates regarding our federal lawsuit against Mille Lacs County. First, the development of historic significance is that Attorney General Keith Ellison filed an amicus brief, often called a “friend of the court” brief, in the case, telling the Court that it is the position of the State of Minnesota that our reservation boundary was never disestablished. This means the State has formally agreed with the Band and the federal government that our Reservation continues to exist. Band members should have received information about this in your mailboxes in February.
Although this does not change the status of our lawsuit, and we are still proceeding in federal court, it is very good news which is exciting for the Band. The State’s position is based on legal research that the Attorney General’s Office conducted after Mr. Walsh and Sheriff Lorge sued the State of Minnesota demanding reimbursement of their legal fees in our case. In that lawsuit, Mr. Walsh and Sheriff Lorge argued that the State should pay their legal fees because they were representing the official position of the State of Minnesota in our case.
In February 2020, the Minnesota Attorney General's Office responded that Mr. Walsh and Sheriff Lorge were not representing the official position of the State because the State agrees with the Band that the boundary was never disestablished. The State’s position was recently reflected in the erection of highway signs on the borders of our Reservation.
Second, the U.S. Department of Justice recently informed us that the United States is also filing an amicus brief in support of the Band’s position. This is welcome news and consistent with the federal government’s position that the Mille Lacs Reservation was never disestablished.
In addition to holding a Zoom meeting for Elders this week on the topic of enrollments, there have been many other meetings this month that I’ve participated in, including weekly cabinet meetings and non-stop Zoom meetings most days. The Elders meeting is in preparation for a Special TEC meeting on March 4 to discuss the topic of enrollment across the MCT and two existing resolutions regarding that matter. Our Mille Lacs Constitutional Delegates are also involved with examining this issue, and I thank them for their work.
I try to keep Band members updated several times each week via a video message on the Band’s Facebook page, so please visit that page or connect with the Band’s YouTube channel to view those updates. I hope all of you remain safe and well, and are able to enjoy the warmer weather that should be coming our way. Miigwech.