'A huge step forward': Minnesota commissioners take historic tribal relations training
ST. PAUL — Tribal leaders have a direct line to the Minnesota governor and the lieutenant governor, a renewed commitment that the state government will work in consultation with them and now a first of its kind effort to have agency commissioners undergo training to better understand tribes.
For the first time in the state's history, commissioners and governor's office employees have entered into training to better understand tribal sovereignty and issues that pertain to indigenous people in Minnesota. The state employees and officials traveled to the Prairie Island Indian Community for a two-day training that started on Monday, Oct. 7.
The move is believed to be the first of its kind in the United States. And Minnesota officials said it's key to improving government-to-government relations with tribes that share geographic boundaries with the state.
“The idea that these people are meeting together I think is a huge step forward,” Brian Twenter, a professor of Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Minnesota-Morris, said. “It’s a big deal.”
Twenter said Minnesota likely is the first state to enter into training about tribal history and governance. And that's important, he said, because it can help give commissioners and other state employees understanding about each of the 11 tribal nations that share geographic borders with the state. Additional training sessions for state employees are set to run through next year.
“We’re actually just doing what is required of us, which is consultation, government-to-government consultation, respecting tribal sovereignty and treaty rights," Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Nation and the first indigenous woman to hold the office, told Forum News Service. "That just should be what the governor’s office does.”
It's the latest step in the administration's effort to improve consultation and government-to-government relations with tribal leaders. Earlier this year, Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order that bolstered the state’s partnership with tribes and required government agencies to meaningfully consult with tribal leaders.
It came into question in August, when officials from the Department of Human Services said two tribes could be on the hook to pay back $25.3 million alleged to have been overpaid for substance abuse treatments. Spokespeople for the White Earth Nation and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe at the time said they hadn't been notified about the potential overpayments for treatment and maintained that they had done what the department had instructed them to do in administering Medicaid dollars for the treatments.
The lack of meaningful consultation was "unacceptable," Flanagan said at the time. And she said the administration would aim to improve moving forward.
“We’re going to make mistakes," Flanagan said, "but we are also going to learn from those mistakes and figure out how to do this work with tribes."
White Earth Band of Ojibwe Chairman Michael Fairbanks said he appreciated the administration's efforts to include tribal leaders as part of their decision-making process. And, ahead of a meeting with the Walz administration in St. Paul, Fairbanks said he hoped to see more of a push to bring in perspectives of Indigenous people.
"It's been good so far," Fairbanks said. "This is kind of a new beginning and the right way to approach things in meeting us head to head or face to face. It's going to build a good relationship."
Members of the Minnesota House of Representatives took on a similar effort earlier this year when they invited leaders from the 11 tribes to speak to lawmakers earlier this year and to share their priorities as part of "Sovereignty Day" at the Capitol. It was the first time a body of the state Legislature held such a summit.
The content of the training program was created by tribal leaders and representatives from the 11 tribal governments were expected to address the commissioners. And that's important, Walz said, because it ensures that the leaders are able to relay their message directly.
“It’s really not us putting together a training for ourselves," Walz said, "it’s coming through that lens of what our tribes want us to know."
Flanagan said her goal in the next four years, or eight if she and Walz are re-elected, is to normalize direct connections to tribal government leaders and set in stone as part of the process of state government operations meaningful consultation with tribes.
"We are building the infrastructure and we are building processes that will just simply live on after we’re here," Flanagan said. "And that you won’t need to have a Native lieutenant governor to start these processes.”