Dozens of elementary school students from Naytahwaush Community Charter School stood proudly on stage singing the Star Spangled Banner Thursday, probably not fully understanding why the 2011 State of the Nation address was dedicated to them.
White Earth Chairwoman Erma Vizenor made education a top priority as she spoke to hundreds of Native Americans and community leaders at the Shooting Star Casino Hotel and Event Center.
"We need so many more resources and reforms in education," she said.
Vizenor addressed school disparities and achievement gaps between Native American students and their non-native peers.
"I have always believed that a good education is our ticket out of poverty," she added.
One of those "tickets" Vizenor talked about was the completion of a four-year study outlining reservation statistics on a variety of school problems such as test scores, behavior, attendance and retention.
"Forty-seven percent of the youth in the Minnesota juvenile correctional system are American Indians, a disproportional percent given our population," Vizenor said.
The nine schools are now set to begin investigation into what is causing the problems.
"I was glad to hear Chairwoman Vizenor talk about this," said Waubun School Superintendent Jeff Bisek.
"The only way we can ever really address it is to bring it up and put it out in front where everybody can see it, to work together with all the agencies and all the people, in order to curtail the problem," said Bisek.
"We can talk, and theorize, complain and blame why there are these disparities in achievement; why many drop out of school, but until we have the facts, the data, and the research to back us up, very little will change," Vizenor said.
She told the audience she believes education is the best investment they can make.
"That is why I am proud to report that a new $16 million K-12 Circle of Life Academy is expected to be completed by fall of this year," she said.
In addition to that is the completion of phase one of the White Earth Tribal & Community College campus, which continues to see more construction.
Vizenor went on to talk about some of the successes seen on the Reservation, such as economic development and roads.
She acknowledged the strides being taken in health care, as plans are underway to build a new kidney dialysis unit.
This unit will go a long way in terms of convenience for Native Americans, because diabetes continues to be a health concern plaguing the Reservation.
Vizenor also reported that construction was happening on a new women's shelter, scheduled for a May opening.
The chairwoman then went on to talk about the promise of money coming to Native residents from the "Nelson Timber Settlement."
This is a $20 million lawsuit, which the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe won against the federal government in the late 1990s over a land dispute dating back to 1889.
The six bands within the tribe have been trying to agree upon distribution of that money for nearly 12 years.
Finally, Vizenor says, they're close.
"We're still working some things out, but each member should receive about $300 at the end of March," she said.
Hope for more incoming money is being placed in the wild rice business.
"We are in the process of marketing our wild rice and wild rice flour," said Vizenor. "We have a new attractive package, and we are going to hit the Internet, our new website and every business."
Vizenor thanked "champions for the Reservation," acknowledging members of the audience, including representatives from both U.S. senators Klobuchar and Franken's office, the Becker County Commissioners and educational leaders from Detroit Lakes and MSUM.
Public safety was another subject hit, as Chairwoman Vizenor talked about the Tribal Law and Order Act, which Congress and President Obama signed in August.
"Indian country has the highest crime rates in the entire country, and one of the best remedies is for tribes to assert jurisdiction in our territories and provide public safety ourselves," said Vizenor.
The chairwoman went on to say attorneys for the tribe are busy writing criminal code, procedures and developing the infrastructure for this new law.
But with some of the pomp and circumstance came a serious address of a darker circumstance.
Vizenor showed no signs of backing down from "unpleasantries," as she addressed the "Declaration of Public Health Emergency" with respect to prescription medication and illegal drug abuse.
Passed by the Tribal Council in January, Vizenor said all departments of the White Earth Tribal Government have been directed to make this declaration a top priority.
"Substance abuse, illegal drugs, prescription drug abuse, alcohol have reached a crisis stage, destroying lives, children, families, communities, and ultimately our tribe."
Vizenor said this "call to action" does not contain all the answers, but it is a place to start in order to stop the deaths, suicides, overdoses, broken families, children in out-of-home placement, school failures, and more.
"So we begin now, and one day our communities, our loved ones, and our entire tribe shall rise like a phoenix and soar like an eagle, healthy, happy, and free from addictions."