Minnesota leadership is on the road to strengthening relationships with tribal nations

Four people stand and talk
Governor Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan today visited the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, making Governor Walz the first Minnesota Governor to visit all 11 tribal nations in Minnesota.
Courtesy photo

Gov. Tim Walz is the first Minnesota governor to visit all 11 tribal nations located in Minnesota.

On Nov. 30, Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan went to the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and met with chair Keith Anderson and secretary-treasurer Rebecca Crooks-Stratton. By visiting each tribal nation, the state administration demonstrates commitment to building relationships with tribes.

“By learning from and working hand-in-hand with tribal governments, we’ll continue building a state government that works better for everyone and ensures Minnesota is a place where tribal nations and their citizens can thrive,” said Walz.

In 2019, Walz issued Executive Order 19-24 which requires state agencies to create and implement tribal consultation policies to guide their interaction with tribal nations in Minnesota.

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And in 2021, Walz signed a bill affirming tribal sovereignty, requiring agencies to appoint tribal-state liaisons. The law also mandates state agency leaders and employees to attend tribal-state relations training.

Flanagan has led the work to strengthen relationships between tribes and the state.

“By traveling to tribal lands and meeting with the 11 tribal governments, we’ve put those words into action,” said Flanagan. 

Flanagan spoke with reporter Melissa Olson about the state’s relationships with tribes, lessons learned and what is ahead.  

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

Lt. Governor, why was it important to you and Governor Walz to pass legislation affirming tribal sovereignty? 

Flanagan: I can say it’s been important to the governor and myself to ensure that we are engaging in government-to-government relationships, state-to-nation relationships. We spent time visiting with tribes during our campaign, once we were elected, and have continued to do that work, because ultimately, as the governor said — I want Minnesota to be known as a place where they get tribal-state relations right. And I certainly share that philosophy for us.

The governor signed an Executive Order 19-24 [requiring state agencies to implement tribal consultation policies to guide their work and interaction with Minnesota tribal nations.] And that was powerful. But what we heard from tribes and from tribal leaders was that this has to be codified in law in order to ensure that when we are no longer in office, that each administration is required to do this work.  

What are some of the key lessons you all have learned over the past three years when it comes to tribal-state relations? 

I’ve been an advocate at the Capitol, I was in the House of Representatives as well. But, it wasn’t until I got to this office that we really were able to start to dream big. Something as simple as putting the White Earth Nation flag in the governor’s reception room. And that’s along with the Minnesota flag and the United States flag, because I’m also citizen of White Earth. Even that simple act, I think, changed the way that we think about it, right? Like working with tribes, consulting with tribes. Before every legislative session now having conversations about what the legislative priorities are for the tribal nations, what are some of the policies that we can move together? I think that that’s been incredibly valuable for just how we do this work.

Knowing that there are 11 distinct tribal governments, we are not a monolith. And that’s been, I think, one of the most important lessons learned in our office, but also across agencies. [It’s] that the priorities for the Yellow Medicine people [Upper Sioux Indian Community] might be different than the priorities for Fond Du Lac [Band of Lake Superior Chippewa]. And that it’s only through deep relationship building and continuing to show up time, after time, after time, that we’re going to be able to really get that right. 

I’d also say the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Taskforce. And then the report that came out the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives office raised the first of its kind in the country. Indigenous Education for All, all of these pieces of significant legislation, MIFPA, right, the Minnesota Indian Family Preservation Act, all these pieces came out of so many of those conversations.

Tell me more about why training for state agencies is important to this work? 

I would say, the tribal-state relations training has been critical to our ability to do this work requiring state staff, Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner, the system commissioners, and now more and more people are going through the training from counties and school districts and folks who just want to learn more. I think you don’t know what you don’t know. And so many of us weren’t taught that Native people are contemporary people, that there are 11 tribal nations who share their geography with the state of Minnesota, that we still exist and contribute to the overall vibrancy of the state of Minnesota. That in and of itself, I think, is meaningful. Talking about the boarding school era, and for how so many of us are one generation removed.

And then seeing, of course, that would have impacts on health, and education, and housing stability and all these additional pieces. I don’t want anyone to walk out of that training feeling guilty. I want people to walk out of that training feeling responsible and accountable. It is a tool in our toolbox to give people. I think some of their foundational knowledge and then their role is to continue to go and build these relationships and understand what is happening in each tribal community, and then craft policies and go from there.

And when it comes to tribal-state relationships, what still needs to be addressed?  

I think there’s always work to be done. We are now in a moment, I think in 2023, we passed an incredible amount of legislation that I think will improve the lives of folks all across the state of Minnesota, including members of tribal nations, Native people. And, we’re really focused on implementation now, and it makes sure that we get it right. And tribes are partners in making sure that that we get it right. That being said, right now, it’s hard to turn a ship that's been going in one direction for 165 years. And so, this work is never over.

We have to continue to tend to the relationships, knowing in the same way that we have elections and state government, that there are elections that also happen at the tribal government level. And maintaining those relationships, reintroducing ourselves, being clear about the goals we want to work on together around healthcare, education, infrastructure, capital improvement and bonding, the workforce and the economy, and I think there’s a real opportunity for us to educate and push other states to follow our lead and to see the work that we’ve been doing. 

And are those conversations you’ve had with other leaders in state government about tribal-state relations and how they work?  

Yes. So, we’ve had the opportunity to have conversations with folks in other states. It's probably not surprising that I have a lot of conversations with other lieutenant governors. And I think you don’t have to be an Anishinaabekwe lieutenant governor in order to do this work. I think there’s real value in both the governor and lieutenant governor building these relationships and learning from tribes. We have talked about the way that we’ve done this, the tribal-state relations office that is housed in a governor’s office that will be ongoing, and just lessons learned.

And I think so often, there are folks who are like, ‘How do we start this? Do I just do I send an email?’ It really is just — these are governments, and approaching this government in the same way that you would approach another government. I think we have to continue to be in a place and really drive home a point that we talk about local municipalities, county governments, and we also need to talk about tribal governments, right, as we are doing the work of the state, so that it’s always ... local, county, and making sure that tribes are also always on that list. 

How do urban Native communities fit into tribal-state relations? 

As an urban Native myself that’s something that I take really seriously, and my roots are in the urban Native nonprofit community. We meet on a regular basis with urban tribal leaders, we have regular calls. We have a public engagement meeting in our office, whose primary job is to build and tend to those relationships. And, we have ongoing conversations with the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors, frequent visits with AICHO, the American Indian Community Housing Organization up in Duluth. So, this work is ongoing, I think this state to tribal Nations is unique — it is what is required of us. And in the same way we need to make sure that we are delivering services, partnering with organizations who are on the ground on the frontlines delivering services. I think you can see reflected in a lot of the policy outcomes and wins that we've had specifically around equity and bonding dollars that are going directly to Native projects in urban areas that came out of this relationship.

What do you feel is important when it comes to narrative and narrative shift and the reporting about tribal Nations and Native communities in Minnesota? 

I love that question. You know, we are moving away from a place where like, you know, the oppression Olympics, right, where I feel like so many of us who’ve been part of nonprofit work or who’ve been part of seeking funding through foundations or through the government always have to be like — it’s so terrible, it's really bad, and let me give you all the statistics … it’s worse over here than it is over there… give us the resources.

And sometimes that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy versus — we are a resilient people who are still here, despite literally everything thing that has been thrown at us, taken from us. And that is absolutely something to be celebrated.