ONAMIA -- Common ground.
After decades marked more by mistrust and misunderstanding than consensus, tribal officials met with county government representatives in a first-ever Minnesota Tribal and County Government Summit and talked about common goals.
There were many.
There are 11 Indian reservations in Minnesota.
Twenty-six counties have reservations within their boundaries.
Indians officially became U.S. citizens in 1924.
There are 50,000 Indians living in Minnesota, according to the 1990 census.
The Minnesota county with the largest number of Indians is Hennepin County.
The Minnesota county that is 100 percent within an Indian reservation is Mahnomen.
The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe is a federation of six reservations.
"We know we have a lot of differences, that's not why we are here today," said Grand Portage Tribal Chairman Norman Deschampe.
Deschampe said the meeting was designed to see where the tribes and counties could work together and solve common problems.
About 100 people, tribal and county officials and staff members from across the state, attended the two-day session on the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation at the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Grand Casino. The meeting was sponsored by the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and the Association of Minnesota Counties.
Using a cordless response system, summit participants were able to identify goals and work through a series of multiple choice questions that tested their knowledge, as well as their priorities. When asked to pick a movie that best described the current state of tribal and county relations, the group chose "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."
Using the anonymity of the response system to vote, participants identified key issues. Topping the list were economic development, education and child welfare. The list continued with housing, health care, environmental regulations, sovereign immunity, treaty rights and chemical dependency.
And where people lived seemed to be more important than whether they were tribal or county officials. Jobs and social issues from chemical dependency to court appointments that remove children from their homes were all topics.
Cass County Commissioner Jim Demgen, who was also a panelist and presenter at the summit, said he was encouraged by the meeting and by the consensus. Demgen urged that information from the summit be shared with the Legislature. When polled, 94 percent of participants were in favor of sending a panel of tribal and county officials to St. Paul.
There was interest in forging a relationship that lasted beyond individual elections and first-time meetings. Dallas Ross, chairman of the Upper Sioux Tribe, said if the panel or another like it were to go to the Legislature on a single issue, he hoped something good would come out of it.
"Even if nothing came out of it, it would be entertaining to watch the Legislature scratch their heads. It would be puzzling to them I think. ... Maybe in the future we could realize something even better, particularly the general concern about child welfare and out-of-home child placements.
"Maybe we can do something on this issue and do it collectively and it would indeed be a historic event."
Summit goals included establishing relationships between the tribes and county government, fostering understanding each other's government history, eliminating misconceptions. A repeated theme was recognizing both tribal councils and county governments have similar issues and serve the same people.
During a break, Crow Wing County representative Peter Herlofsky Jr., county administrator, said it was beneficial to attend just to make contacts and obtain general knowledge.
On the second day, Leech Lake Tribal Chairman Eli Hunt said better communication between the tribes and the counties means people should not be afraid to speak openly or ask tough questions. Others agreed.
Small groups advised regular meetings, increased trust and understanding and an open dialogue with the option of pursuing issues in a united form before the Legislature. In the end there was verbal agreement to meet again and support to form a tribal/county commission, particularly to look at child welfare issues.
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