Aaniin, Boozhoo! The sure sign of spring is when the sap begins to run. The first pails hanging from the maple trees are always a good sight to see. It brings back fond memories to many of our Elders, and it is an opportunity for our youth to learn our traditional practices.
On March 15, Congresswoman Deb Haaland made history by being the first American Indian to ever lead the Department of Interior, and the first American Indian to ever serve on the Cabinet of any President in history. As Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said, “We’ve now made history twice in the last few minutes.“. I am very excited about the next time I see her, when I can call one of our strongest leaders in Indian Country “Madame Secretary.“ This has also been an historic year with so many highly qualified American Indian people being appointed to positions in government that serve all Americans, rather than just the usual positions that only administer tribal programs.
My calendar in March was extremely busy with representing the Band at federal consultations with tribal governments. On January 26, President Biden signed an Executive Order on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening the Nation-to-Nation Relationships, which requires each federal agency and department to submit a “detailed plan of actions the agency will take“ to implement meaningful consultation with tribal governments. The Executive Order gave all 67 federal agencies 90 days to submit their plan, which means that these agencies only have approximately 30 days left to engage in official consultation with tribal governments about how they are going to carry out the government-to-government relationship with tribes. Attending these consultation sessions has been a monster of a task, but each meeting is critical. To make things even more challenging, many of these consultations are scheduled at the same time or overlap. To address this challenge, I have been ensuring that we submit written comments to agencies as well.
An additional critical topic of federal consultation has involved the new American Recovery Program Act (ARP), which is the biggest infusion of federal money into Indian Country in the history of the United States. The Congress appropriated $20 billion dollars to be used by tribal governments for recovery from COVID-19. $1 billion is set aside to be divided among all tribal governments and Alaska Native Villages using a formula yet to be developed, and $20 billion is set-aside funding for tribes through scores of different federal programs. We are in high-gear and working hard to influence the development of a formula that most benefits the Mille Lacs Band, and our Grants Department is working hard to make sure the Band is prepared to apply for these many grants that will soon be available. As a Band, we are very fortunate to have an outstanding Grants Department; most tribes don’t have full-time grant-writers and may be unable to take advantage of many of these grant opportunities.
In addition to daily consultation sessions with the federal government, I have participated in meetings of the Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes, the Native American Finance Officers Association, the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, and the Minnesota Board on Aging, and we have devoted a lot of energy to attempting to get the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to include impaired wild rice waters on their list of impaired waterways that need protection. In 2015, the Minnesota Legislature prohibited MPCA from including impaired wild rice waters on the list of impaired waters, which the state reports to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. This is wrong, and we are fighting hard with the other tribes in Minnesota to correct this injustice.
Finally, on March 15, 2021, our attorneys in the federal lawsuit against Mille Lacs County presented their oral arguments in federal court as to why our reservation boundary established by the Treaty of 1855 was never disestablished and still exists. Both the United States of America and the State of Minnesota have filed amicus briefs, or “friend of the court“ briefs, siding with the Mille Lacs Band. When we have access to the transcript of this hearing, we will share it with the Band community.
On that point, March 19, 2021 was Treaty Rights Day. This day has become one of celebration, including giveaways, raffles, and fun activities. But I think it is important to also think about WHY we celebrate our Treaty Rights. This day focuses a lot on the 1837 Treaty, and our hunting, fishing, and gathering rights. Our lawsuit against Minnesota to affirm these rights went all the way to the Supreme Court, and we won. In that case, the Supreme Court sided with the Band and affirmed that our rights to hunt, fish, and gather as our ancestors were promised by the Treaty of 1837 still exist today.
But there are other treaties as well — like the Treaty of 1855, which established the Mille Lacs Reservation. That Treaty, which was signed on February 22, 1855, established the original 61,000-acre Mille Lacs Reservation as a permanent homeland for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, which is now the subject of our federal lawsuit with Mille Lacs County.
There are also the Treaties of 1863 and 1864. During the Dakota War of 1862, the Ojibwe Bands did not all agree on whether to enter the war and assist the Dakota. The Mille Lacs Band leaders discouraged other Chippewa from entering into the war because they knew they would be out-gunned. Instead, Mille Lacs Band members gave white settlers advance warning and actively protected them. The Treaties of 1863 and 1864 were intended by the U.S. to force several Bands of Chippewa to move to White Earth — to be “removed.“ For Mille Lacs, however, those treaties say that due to the Mille Lacs Band’s good conduct during the 1862 Conflict, we would never be forced to move from our reservation. This is how we became named the “Non-Removables“ among the Chippewa in Minnesota.
It is important for our kids to learn what each of our Treaties means, and to understand why each is important. The 1837 Treaty was about our right to protect our way of life, to feed our families, and to practice our culture and traditions in the territories we ceded to the United States. The Treaties of 1855, 1863, and 1864 were about securing our homelands forever.
Exercising our treaty-reserved rights today within our homelands and in the ceded territories should be something all our kids understand and experience, at least once. Our traditional way of life, our practices, and our culture are what help our kids grow up well-rounded.
If you can, please find opportunities this spring to help our youth get out into nature and experience our traditions and culture. The first taste of fresh maple sugar and syrup is sure to delight our kids of all ages, and is even better when they are able to participate in the harvest! Miigwech.