May 2020 Message from the Chief Executive


Dear Band members,

These are tough times as we fight to prevent the spread of COVID-19 into our Band communities, but we are tough peo- ple. We come from strong ancestors who survived against all odds — from war and disease to genocide, our ancestors were resilient and brave. They fought for future generations.

As I’m writing this column on April 27, it is Art Gahbow Day, and I am thinking of former Chief Executive Gahbow and the battles he waged for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

Chief Executive Gahbow was a warrior. He fought for tribal sovereignty and our inherent right as a self-governing tribal government to make decisions for our Band without outside interference. He began our fight for our treaty rights, our res- ervation boundary, and he brought Indian gaming to the Mille Lacs Band. He was partially able to make these historic gains because back in the 1980s, he also fought for our three-branch division-of-powers system of governance that we have in place today, which is unique among other tribes.

Having three branches of government — Executive, Legislative and Judicial — has helped our government to respond three times more quickly to this crisis than we might have otherwise, if there was still a traditional Reservation Business Committee (RBC) in place. Rather than having one tribal council of five people doing everything for the tribe — such as being program administrators, legislators, and serving as judge and jury when necessary — we have three branches that each have specific duties. This system has allowed us to make immediate adjustments and ensure the most critical services are delivered. Other tribes have been monitoring our Facebook page and website, and our officials and staff regularly receive calls asking for advice about how we have been getting so much done. In large part, it is because of the wise decisions our predecessors.

Because of how our system of government is structured, the Band Assembly and I were able to immediately authorize our Tribal Emergency Response Committee (TERC) to make immediate shifts and changes necessary to respond to this crisis and keep services going for the community. I am so proud of our TERC, which is led by our Band commissioners and Emergency Services Director Monte Fronk, and includes staff leadership from all three branches of government. This is a unified team that has been working around the clock for our Band.

Back when Chief Executive Gahbow and our Elders created our system of government, there were those who opposed us at the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. They argued that the MCT was “one tribe” with six reservations, and they said one reser- vation could not do things differently from the rest. Art fought hard against that argument, and eventually got a ruling from the U.S. Department of Interior saying that our system was in compliance with the MCT Constitution.

Almost 40 years later, there are still those who have been recently arguing that each of the six bands of the MCT are “one tribe”. A few have claimed that our system of government is unconstitutional, and that the “real” sovereign tribe is the MCT, that what belongs to one belongs to all, and that the six bands are not separately sovereign without the MCT.

But they are wrong. The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe signed treaties with the United States many decades before the MCT was created in 1936. The MCT was a creation of the federal government as a way for the BIA to distribute Nelson Act monies. Today, we are still part of the MCT consortium and share a constitution. Enrollment decisions are approved by the TEC, and some of our lands are held the name of the MCT, but the MCT has no authority over our day-to-day decisions and governance. We are a self-governing, separately sovereign federally recognized Indian tribe with our own government-to-government relationship with federal and state agencies. We have our own gaming compacts and our own self-governance com- pacts, which would be impossible if we were not a separately sovereign tribal government. Much of our progress today is because we are standing on the shoulders of great leaders like former Chief Executive Art Gahbow.

I know these times are very hard on Band members. People are living in fear of what the future might bring, with positive cases now in Mille Lacs, Aitkin, and Pine counties. Many Band members have suddenly found themselves without employment, due to having been furloughed or laid off by other employers. But every day, while on conference calls with other tribes in Minnesota and the nation, I’m reminded that as hard as things may be, we are very fortunate at Mille Lacs com- pared to how other tribes are doing. A majority who I speak with have been unable to provide their members with any financial stimulus help, care packages, or even keep emergency services going. It is my belief that our three-branch system of government has been the foundation of our success so far in providing help to our Band membership.

State medical experts are telling us that things are likely to get harder in the days and months ahead for all tribal commu- nities in Minnesota. As the weather warms up and tourists and cabin-owners find their way north again, our region is likely to be impacted. The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe is doing all we can to prepare for that battle to protect the health and well-being of our Band members. As we fight for our economic recovery and our health, please remember to do your part with social distancing and encouraging Elders and those with underlying health issues to stay home. Together, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe will get through this period, and we will persevere, just as we always have since time immemorial. Miigwech, and stay safe.