Kevin Mahto is a member of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe. He lives just around the corner from a Bemidji pawnshop, and knows owner Don Josefson by name. On a recent day, Mahto stopped in to pawn a full-length coat.
"Hey Don," Mahto says.
"Hi Kevin, how ya doing?" Josefson replies.
"Pretty good this morning," Mahto says. "I'd like to pawn this item. And I'd like to get 25 bucks for it."
"OK, I can do that. You got an ID?" says Josefson.
Josefson and Mahto know what's going to happen next. The only ID Mahto carries is his Red Lake tribal identification card. Josefson can't accept the card, even though it has Mahto's photo and a lot of the same information that's found on a Minnesota drivers license.
Pawnshops are government-regulated, so Josefson is required by law to ask for an ID. He can accept Canadian IDs or IDs from other states. But the computer system he's mandated to use isn't set up to accept tribal IDs.
Josefson says he's frustrated not only because he's losing business, but because he thinks not accepting tribal IDs is wrong.
"This is not New York City. This is Bemidji, Minnesota," Josefson says. "I know a good deal of these people personally, and unless they've been lying to me since they were 15, they are who they say they are. But I can't do business with them, because they don't have a Minnesota state-issued ID."
Technically, when Josefson rejects a tribal ID he violates a state law passed just last year. The law says that if a Minnesota drivers license is an acceptable form of ID under state law, then a tribal ID is, too.
But here's where things start to get complicated. The law applies only to specific situations where people are required by the state to show an ID. Pawning something at a pawn shop, for example. Or buying tobacco or alcohol. The law says tribal IDs are now an acceptable form of identification in those sorts of transactions.
“I know a good deal of these people personally, and unless they've been lying to me since they were 15, they are who they say they are. But I can't do business with them.”Don Josefson, Bemidji pawnshop owner
But since the computer system Josefson uses at his pawnshop does not accept tribal IDs, and it hasn't been upgraded in the year since the law took place, he's out of compliance.
Even in the limited situations where the law applies, some say things aren't going very well. Some businesses in the state still have signs hanging by their cash registers declaring that tribal IDs aren't accepted.
According to Audrey Thayer, coordinator of the Greater Minnesota Justice Project, a program of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, Indians have had trouble for years using their tribal IDs to buy a pack of cigarettes, cash or write checks or board an airplane.
Thayer says American Indians are starting to complain about tribal ID rejection. Thayer says her office and other American Indian advocacy groups will soon start pushing the issue. She says a lawsuit over tribal IDs has already been filed in Hennepin County, and more suits could be in the making.
"I'm moving rather quickly now to negotiate, and work with the county and the cities in the areas up here so that we don't have to have suits. No one wants to have suits filed against them," says Thayer.
One of the issues tribal governments are going to have to resolve deals with ID card security. The new law says tribal IDs must contain security features that make them impervious to tampering or duplication. But many tribal IDs may not meet the vague standards set out in the 2006 law.
Beltrami County Attorney Tim Faver says that makes the situation confusing. He says state agencies are working with tribes to establish clear criteria for secure tribal IDs. Faver says until there's some uniformity to the tribal cards, there will continue to be problems.
"It is really not fair in my mind that a clerk in a convenience store or, quite frankly, a city or county government, to be making the determination in a given case as to what ID card meets the requirements of the statute," says Faver. "I think those are standards that need to be further defined and set by the state."
What Indian tribes in Minnesota would like to see is full recognition of tribal IDs as legitimate forms of identification everywhere. The new state law doesn't do that. A video store, for example, can still turn away American Indians who want to use their ID to rent a movie.
Observers say it may be difficult for the state of Minnesota to force private businesses to honor tribal IDs.