Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin addresses the pro-tribal police "Un-Cuff our Cops, Unite our Communities rally held inside the rotunda of the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota.
St. Paul, Minnesota November 20, 2017 - The National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) stood strong today in support of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, which is in the midst of a public safety crisis on the Mille Lacs Reservation in east-central Minnesota. At the pro-tribal police "Un-Cuff our Cops, Unite Our Communities" rally held inside the rotunda of the Minnesota State Capitol, more than 200 Band members and supporters broke into applause when Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. announced that the 184 Indian Nations represented by NIGA were solidly behind the Mille Lacs Band.
"Indian country has had its struggles, but we are family, and we stay together. Mille Lacs has always been there for other Indian nations and NIGA through the Band's progressive advocacy in Washington D.C.," said Chairman Stevens. "Today, NIGA is here for you," he told Band Members.
In July 2016, Mille Lacs County unilaterally revoked the law enforcement agreement that had been in place with the Mille Lacs Band since 2008, primarily over a dispute involving the reservation boundary. The county's action resulted in 36 tribal police officers losing their authority to enforce state criminal law on 61,000 acres within the reservation boundary. Last Friday, the Band filed a lawsuit naming Mille Lacs County in federal district court to restore the authority of tribal police to enforce state law.
With a nationwide opioid epidemic, the county's refusal to work with tribal police has resulted in an inability to stop the influx of drug dealers to the reservation who believe they will go unpunished, and for the most part, will not be prosecuted. "During 2015, there were seven overdoses on the Reservation," said Mille Lacs Band Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Brad Harrington. "Since the agreement was revoked in 2016, there have been sixty-six overdoses, thirteen of which resulted in fatalities."
The county has refused to enter into a new agreement until the Band concedes that its "Indian country" is limited to approximately 3,000 acres held in trust by the federal government, as opposed to the 61,000-acre reservation recognized by the federal government. Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin reported that in mediation, the county continues to make outrageous demands of the Band that would infringe upon tribal sovereignty.
Chairman Stevens talked about his first experience twenty-five years ago trying to reach an agreement with a neighboring village. "My father helped me to understand that it takes patience, mutual respect and good communication. He taught me that with give and take cooperation, and understanding and appreciation of the mutual benefits for the health and welfare of both parties, an agreement is possible," said Stevens. "But both parties have to be committed."
Stevens encouraged Band Members to continue taking the high road and to defend their rights respectfully and without getting angry or showing aggression. "But that does not mean you don't fight. Sovereignty is your shield -- and the courtroom, the legislature, and halls of Congress are your battlefields. We stand together as Native people. We will continue to look out for each other," said Stevens.
While the tribal police maintain their ability to exercise Inherent Band authority and enforce federal law over Native people on about 3500 acres of trust lands, tribal police have been unable to enforce state criminal law across the majority of the reservation. The County's decision to revoke the agreement has harmed not only Band Members but has also impacted the safety of non-Native neighbors living in the northern portion of the county, who also depended on tribal police protection.
On that point, Chairman Stevens also had a message for Minnesotans, reminding them about appreciating what Indian tribes contribute to benefit not just the tribe, but the entire community, Indian and non-Indian. "More than 700,000 jobs exist across this Nation because of Indian gaming. Almost everyone in this industry works together because they understand the benefits of working together. The success of this industry doesn't stop at the reservation boundaries," said Stevens.
To Band Members, he assured them that "we're all in this together. We mutually benefit when times are good, and we have helped one another through our challenges. This is no different. For the Mille Lacs Band, this a stressful time and NIGA stands in solidarity with you," said Chairman Stevens.
Chief Executive Benjamin expressed gratitude to Chairman Stevens and NIGA. "NIGA has always been there for Indian tribes facing tough times, and Chairman Stevens has especially been a rock for our community in good times and bad. We are so grateful for his support," said Chief Executive Benjamin.