Sovereignty Day draws tribal and state leaders to discuss Native issues

Minnesota tribal leaders pose for a portrait
Minnesota tribal leaders came to the State Capitol for Sovereignty Day on Monday.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

On Monday, the heads of the 11 tribal nations in the state visited with state lawmakers at the capitol in St Paul.

On Sovereignty Day, leaders are discussing a range of issues like how to best protect Native children and families, tribal law enforcement and new gaming regulations.

To get the details, DFL Representative Jamie Becker-Finn joined MPR News senior producer Melissa Townsend. She is a descendent of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and she represents district 40B in the Twin Cities suburbs.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

Subscribe to the Minnesota Now podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.   

We attempt to make transcripts for Minnesota Now available the next business day after a broadcast. When ready they will appear here.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] MELISSA TOWNSEND: And this is Minnesota Now. I'm Melissa Townsend in for Cathy Wurzer. It's 12:08. Today's the day heads of the 11 tribal nations in the state visit with state lawmakers at the capitol in St. Paul. On Sovereignty Day, leaders are discussing a range of issues like how to best protect Native families, tribal law enforcement, and new gaming regulations.

To get the details, I'm joined by DFL representative, Jamie Becker-Finn. She's a descendant of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. And she represents District 40b in the Twin City suburbs. Welcome back to Minnesota Now, Representative.

JAMIE BECKER-FINN: Yeah, glad to be here.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Glad to have you. So today's event began with statements from tribal leaders. What are some of the biggest priorities from what you're hearing?

JAMIE BECKER-FINN: I think one of the biggest things is just that our tribal leaders and our tribal nations are recognized. The reality is that if you don't serve in the Native caucus or you haven't worked on some of these issues, just the fact that legislators, both House and Senate from both parties, listen to tribal leaders for two hours this morning is a big deal to hear directly from those folks. So that really is the biggest thing that we could accomplish today is to hear directly from our tribal leaders instead of through lobbyists or other places. To hear those voices directly is very important.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Got it. I was thinking about the legislature. There were a lot of new lawmakers this year. And I know tribal law is very complicated. What kind of training is available? Or do you feel like people are up to speed on some of the tribal and state relationships that come into play when they're making laws?

JAMIE BECKER-FINN: They definitely are not. And I think that's why Speaker Hortman started this Sovereignty Day. This is only the second time we've done it, but really highlighting some of the deficits and all that folks do have to learn. Just listening to committee hearings when things come up, just the way that people talk about treaty rights or tribal rights, you can tell that they don't understand for instance that our treaties are the supreme law of the land outlined in our Constitution.

Or that tribes may have usufructuary rights within tribal laws, a word we use. But those rights are things that our tribal nations and tribal communities have always held and never gave up. So a lot of times you'll hear people say, well, why do they get special rights? And it isn't really that it was something that was given to us. It's something that we never let go of pre-Minnesota, even being a state right.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: And I laugh because the word "usufructuary" is not actually in everybody's everyday language. But it's extremely important. I totally get that. Let me ask you specifically about gaming. I know the expansion of gaming is on the table, sports betting. What are some of the concerns you're hearing from tribes?

JAMIE BECKER-FINN: Yeah. First of all, I just want to say I think some people mostly think of tribal nations in relation to gaming. But most of our efforts here at the Capitol are actually, especially us as Native legislators, are not focused on gaming. I think any time there is pressure, sports betting is a great example, that wasn't the tribe's idea to expand that. That's pressure coming from outside groups who want to make money.

And so any time that we're looking at expanding those things, and maybe there are folks who are pushing to do things, go more mobile, and kind open that up to other business ventures. Making sure that at the heart of it, we're remembering our obligations and the rights of our tribal nations. And that has to really be put first. As much as folks who maybe listen to some other radio stations in the Twin Cities might love the idea of talking about sports betting, the reality is there's also a lot more important things that we're also focused on as Native communities and Native legislators.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: I understand. But I'm sure that there is concern around expanding this to nontribal entities. Is there a commitment among lawmakers to protect tribes' right to gaming?

JAMIE BECKER-FINN: There is a commitment from the chief author of the bill. And I can tell you, I would not vote for something that our tribes were not OK with. And I think that's the sentiment of a lot of legislators. But again, that's just one of many issues that's sort of before us as legislators related to our tribal communities.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Definitely. I have just another minute with you. And I do want to focus on some of those other priorities. You're breaking out into breakout sessions this afternoon. What are some of the things people are most interested in working on?

JAMIE BECKER-FINN: Yeah I think, number one, that's really important is education, how our Native kids are supported in schools, how other folks are educated so they understand. So we don't have somebody who becomes a legislator and doesn't even understand basic sovereignty principles. That's always really important. The other thing that's really, we're hoping to move forward this year, is concurrent law enforcement. So essentially, putting licensed tribal peace officers on the same footing as other licensed peace officers in Minnesota. So that our tribal police departments can enforce the law, enforce state law within tribal communities the same as other licensed peace officers.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: I saw that you introduced a bill related to my Mille Lacs [Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe] right?

JAMIE BECKER-FINN: Well, it's related to all of our tribal law enforcement jurisdictions. It's just sort of the way in statute. Because we were sort of an afterthought, there's separate sections of statute on every single tribe. And what we're trying to do this year is just be really clear that any licensed peace officer, no matter whether they're hired by a tribal police department, a county, a city, that they have the same right and the same ability to enforce the law here in Minnesota. So it really would apply to every tribal police department.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Got it. Thank you for clarifying. Well, I wish I had more time with you. But thanks for joining us for just a quick couple of minutes.

JAMIE BECKER-FINN: Yeah, thanks for having me.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: You got it. Jamie Becker-Finn is DFL representative for the Roseville area in the Twin City suburbs. She's also a descendant of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. And she's been talking with us about Sovereignty Day at the Capitol where 11 tribal nations leaders are meeting with state lawmakers.

Download transcript (PDF)

Transcription services provided by 3Play Media.