Minnesota News

Lower Sioux Community explores reconciliation through an 'honor tax'

A woman stands on a bluff above a river
Land history consultant Jessica Intermill stands on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River in St. Paul on Aug. 23. The spot, located between St. Anthony Falls and Fort Snelling, sits on the boundary between two treaty territories, both with the Dakota.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Jessica Intermill remembers running the pastures on her family’s farm on the Kansas-Nebraska border. She says her grandfather paid her a nickel to spot thistle so that his cows wouldn’t eat them.

Later, as an attorney practicing in federal Indian law, Intermill says she began to wonder what her family’s lands looked like when Indigenous people lived on it, before it was ceded to settlers.

Her work as an attorney, along with research into her family’s homestead, led Intermill to create the Mni Sota Makoce Honor Tax, as another way Minnesotans and Dakota people might build relationships.

According to the website, people “who live in, work on, and visit traditionally Dakota land” may make payments directly to the Lower Sioux Community, a federally recognized tribal nation in Minnesota.

Funds are deposited directly into an account held by the Lower Sioux Community. It looks like a donation, but has layers of meaning, Intermill says.

One key difference, Intermill says, is that like a property tax or a rent payment, an honor tax is paid to a sovereign nation who in turn allocates those funds according to their own priorities.

She drew inspiration for the project from a virtual event in 2021 hosted by the Native Governance Center. Attendees discussed reconciliation efforts beyond land acknowledgements — written statements acknowledging Indigenous sovereignty over the lands on which an institution or organization is situated — that have come into practice in the U.S. over the past decade.

A woman stands on a bluff above a river
Land history consultant Jessica Intermill poses for a photo overlooking the Mississippi River in St. Paul on Aug. 23.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Intermill heard about the Wiyot Honor Tax which effectively transfers money from non-Indigenous people living on the Wiyot Nation's traditional territories in California back to the nation.

Lower Sioux Community president Robert Larsen spoke during the same event about the return of land from the state of Minnesota to his community.

Through her work as an attorney, Intermill had a long-standing relationship with Larsen and the Lower Sioux Community council. Following the symposium, she approached Larsen and the council with the idea of creating a similar project in Minnesota. Months later, she was invited to present the idea.

During the council meeting there were a few awkward moments.

“I don't know if you can see side eye on a microphone,” said Intermill, “They're like, ‘so it's what, it's a white people tax? How is this gonna work?’”

Larsen remembers a similar conversation following that council meeting.

“You're thinking, well, would anybody really even do this?” said Larsen. “There are genuine people that genuinely care in our area. But, when you get out [of the area], people that have learned more history, they want to help somehow, and this is a great for that.”

In March of 2022, the elected leadership of the Lower Sioux community passed a resolution in favor of accepting contributions in the form of an honor tax. The resolution states the tax is “entirely voluntary” and emphasizing the council’s hope Minnesotans might “learn the history of U.S. treatymaking and broken treaty promises.”

Located in the Minnesota River Valley, the Lower Sioux Community is part of a larger diaspora of Dakota communities extending as far west as Nebraska and as far north as Manitoba. Under the terms of a mid-19th century treaty Dakota communities reserved a parcel of land along the Minnesota River but were violently expelled.

In the 1930s, the United States recognized land Dakota people themselves had purchased, recognizing the southwestern Minnesota community it now calls Lower Sioux Indian Community.

Eagan resident Kristie Mandel recently decided to make a payment to the Mni Sota Makoce honor tax, with the money going directly to the Lower Sioux Community — one of four Dakota communities located in Minnesota.

“The fact this exists, it seems like a natural next step on how to honor the people that came before us,” said Mandel, who learned about the honor tax through a program for employees at the University of Minnesota.

Robert Larsen is the tribal chairman of Lower Sioux Indian Community.
Robert Larsen is president of the Lower Sioux Indian Community.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Mandel says she aspires to pay an amount equal to what she pays in property taxes.

“I need to keep reminding myself it's not a donation,” says Mandel. “Recognizing that Indigenous tribes were here, and I am on land that’s used to be their homelands. I am recognizing the fact that I am paying rent in a way.”

The Mni Sota Makoce honor tax website went live in February. So far, Intermill says she’s seen individual contributions averaging between $15 and $25. She estimates that approximately 100 people have made payments.

Larsen says the community has prioritized youth programming and land acquisition.

“We call ourselves Dakota, and that means ‘ally,’” said Larsen, “At this point, I think the past leadership have made such great decisions, and charted a great course that that we are okay.”

“We're not rich kings, but we're all right. And we're still here. So hopefully, this is one way that can help to make the future better.”