Vizenor says state is challenging casino's trust status

Sovereignty was a key issue brought up by all three tribal chairs who served on the panel of the Forum on Tribal Issues Thursday night at Bemidji State University's American Indian Resource Center.

Sovereignty was a key issue brought up by all three tribal chairs who served on the panel of the Forum on Tribal Issues Thursday night at Bemidji State University's American Indian Resource Center.

The event was part of American Indian Week at BSU and the setting incorporated the annual Ojibwe Art Expo, which is being held through May 4.

On the panel were White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma J. Vizenor, Red Lake Tribal Chairman Floyd "Buck" Jourdain Jr. and Bois Forte Tribal Chairman Kevin Leecy. The panel was moderated by Anita Fineday, chief judge for the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and associate judge for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

Vizenor noted that she received a letter Thursday from Gov. Tim Pawlenty stating that the state is challenging the federal government's approval of trust status of the land on which the Shooting Star Casino sits in Mahnomen, a decision that placed the land under tribal jurisdiction.

"We are sovereign nations," Vizenor said. "It's written right into the American constitution. We can't be sitting listening to state staff and state commissioners. ... We are under a process of change with the state of Minnesota. Our hunting and fishing rights, our rights to govern ourselves, our lands - that's what we have to protect. I should not have to read about the state appealing our land going into trust status."


American Indians tribes have an array of issues: "Wide, far, deep and high," Vizenor said. "We must never forget our past. The spirits of our ancestors are here with us. They have prayed for the day when our people are free, healthy and strong. Those are the things I work for."

The chairs discussed the proposed state casino, which is favored by Vizenor but opposed by Jourdain and Leecy. All three said they respected the opinions of those who disagree.

Leecy says Pawlenty is using a "divide and conquer" tactic to overcome opposition.

Jourdain said states have historically held their own interests above the interests of the tribes. "We had to protect our own interests," he said. "We elected not to go forward."

"We knew that the state would benefit, but we knew we would benefit," Vizenor said. "That's how partnerships work."

"Without sovereignty we cease to exist as Indian people," Jourdain said. "National administration and state administration are direct threats to sovereignty."

The Red Lake Nation keeps a close eye on what happens with other tribes, he said. "All of us are in the same boat together as tribal nations."

Jourdain proudly held up a Red Lake Nation license plate during his time at the podium.


"We were the first Indian tribe in the country to have their own license plates," he said. "We use our sovereign power to get our own license plates. ... As a result of that, all Indian tribes in the country can have their own license plates."

On March 21, 2005, the day of the Red Lake shooting, "We had a horrible, horrible tragedy on our reservation," Jourdain said.

After the shooting, media entered the reservation in droves and the tribe laid down specific guidelines and restrictions for members of the media.

"We exercised our own sovereign power," Jourdain said. "We got together a strategy. All these people would not infringe on the rights of our tribal people."

Leecy, who was recently elected vice president of the National Indian Gaming Association, pointed to sovereignty as the reason reservations have Indian gaming.

"Sovereignty is not something new that anyone gave us or can give us," he said. "It is inherent."

Revenues from Fortune Bay Resort Casino have helped the Bois Forte Reservation tremendously, he said, pointing to improvement in housing, health care and infrastructure. "I could go on and on about the tremendous differences gaming has made."

But gaming has benefits for people other than American Indians, he said.


Fortune Bay has about 500 employees, 70 percent of whom are non-Indian, and an annual payroll of $8.5 million. It makes contributions to dozens of charitable organizations such as the American Heart Association and the March of Dimes.

The Minnesota Indian Gaming Association has found that Indian gaming created 13,000 jobs in the state, 80 percent of them held by non-Indians, and brings in millions of dollars in tourism, Leecy said.

But Indian affairs still have a long way to go, he said. "Our unemployment rate is still 30 percent. It's a lot better than before Indian gaming, but it's still high."

Elder care, diabetes, early deaths and a lack of students entering college are among other issues that need to be addressed, he said.

"It takes a long time to fix problems caused by poverty, isolation and hopelessness. You can't mend that damage overnight, but you can make a start."

Other topics discussed were gang and drug activity, tribal enrollment, tribal banishment, Ojibwe language retention and federal budget cuts.

(Laurie Swenson writes for the Bemidji Pioneer , a Forum Communications Co. newspaper)

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