On Native Soil

By MNR News posted 11-07-2022 15:04

How Minnesota's Native Americans are working to reclaim their culture, lands, and heritage. 
Minnesota has a pristine newness about it. From the modern skylines of the Twin Cities to freshly built suburbs with trim lawns and glimmering shopping malls, it might have been prefabricated and set down whole on uninhabited prairies and woodlands. Even its wild stretches are tamed by highways lined with billboards hawking everything from burgers and boats to cabins, condos, and the very land itself. Yet for almost 13,000 years the ancestors of today’s Dakota (Sioux), Chippewa, and Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) hunted, fished, traded, and gathered along the state’s rivers and lakes and woodlands and grasslands. The land was theirs, though they did not see it as a commodity to be measured, plated, fenced, and sold. It was a source of life and sustenance; a giving mother to all the people upon it.

For the white settlers who came to Minnesota in the 19th century and built farms, towns, and cities, the land was a resource for creating wealth. They harvested its forests, mined its metals, farmed its rich soils, and built nascent industries along its rivers, laying the foundation for the prosperity enjoyed by millions of Minnesotans today. But for the 25,000 Native American people who inhabited the region for millennia, the expansion of the United States marked the end of a way of life, and their ability to live free and shape their own destinies.

The resulting clash of civilizations put the two main tribes, the Dakota and the Anishinaabe, in a precarious place where they walked a razor’s edge between the ancient world of their ancestors and the turbulent churn of a modern market economy. After enduring a decades-long campaign by federal and state governments to eradicate their culture through war, forced exile, assimilation, and then indifference and neglect, their descendants struggled for most of the 20th century.

Wrestling with high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, and
mental illness, Minnesota’s 11 recognized tribal nations were impoverished, often unable to get enough food and other necessities. Well into the 1960s, most Anishinaabe families on the White Earth Reservation did not have running water in their homes. Almost no one owned a car, and there were only four telephones serving the entire population. Most Minnesota tribes faced a similar predicament.

Gambling on their future

By the 1980s, conditions were improving but many Native Americans still lived below the poverty line. Upward mobility was addled by very low high-school graduation rates, and chronic unemployment. Around this time, tribal leaders began looking at a solution being considered by other Native American communities across the United States—casino gambling. Taking advantage of 19th century treaty provisions that allowed them to define legal activities on their reservations, they began running games of chance on their lands.

The opportunity was a windfall for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Community. Squeezed onto a tiny, 250-acre parcel outside Prior Lake, this band of Dakota had high unemployment rates and depended on government food subsidies. All that changed after they launched the Little Six Bingo Parlor in 1982. The small, but highly profitable venture allowed the tribe to begin acquiring land in the surrounding area. By 1992, when they opened the Mystic Lake Casino Hotel complex, the tribe owned 3,300 acres. With their newfound wealth, they installed modern sewage and water systems, roads, and other infrastructure, and built homes, community centers, and a large golf course beside the casino. Although the Shakopee Mdewakanton Community does not publicly disclose its casino earnings, a 2005 investigation by The Star Tribune reported that each adult member of the tribe was receiving $1 million a year in profit sharing. Additionally,
the community generated thousands of jobs with good wages, and has given many millions of dollars to other Minnesota Indian tribes, and charitable causes.

Are casinos the ‘new buffalo’ or a boondoggle?

Did the market forces that nearly destroyed Native Americans ultimately save them when they embraced full-throated, entrepreneurial capitalism? Although some promoters hyped casinos as the “new buffalo,” a source of prosperity and security for all the state’s Native Americans, the reality is more complex for most in Mni Sota Makoce—Land Where the Waters Reflect the Clouds.

Today there are 21 casinos owned and operated by 11 tribes in
17 Minnesota counties. Many of them are in sparsely populated northern regions where tourist traffic is low. In a 2012 interview with MinnPost, Terry Tibbetts, White Earth Nation tribal chair observed:

“The big myth out there in Indian country is you look at Shakopee Mdewakanton... where they distribute up around three quarters of a million to almost a million dollars per person.... But they got the luxury of being in the Twin Cities metro area where they are busy, busy, busy. We’re rural. We are probably 70 miles from the nearest big town—which we call a big town... Bemidji or Detroit Lakes. So, our casino is as big as it’s ever going to get.... We’ve got to make do with what we’ve got.”

For members of these tribes, casino subsidies provide a boost, but don’t lift them into the middle class. Until 2020 when payments were suspended due to the pandemic, Mille Lacs band members received about $10,000 a year from business profits (numbers are not available for the post-pandemic period). And while casino operations helped take Mille Lacs from an 80% unemployment rate—one of the worst in the nation—to around 14% today, the Band still struggles to create sustainable wealth and security for its people.

Further, not all tribes disperse casino money directly to their members. The White Earth Ojibwe tribe at Grand Portage
put earnings into tribe-wide services for medical care, dental health, college funds, and other funds for improving quality
of life. Other tribes are faring far worse. According to the 2010 census, nearly 74% of all families living on the Leech Lake
Band of Anishinaabe Reservation were below the poverty line. Averaged across all Minnesota tribes, 40% of Native people
lived in poverty with a median household income of $31,000. By comparison, the statewide median income was nearly $60,000. Housing conditions were often substandard. Many dwellings have inadequate plumbing, heating, and electric, and according to a 2021 report from Leech Lake, almost no access to broadband Internet. Although the U.S. government is now honoring treaty payments to the Anishinaabe, the funds to individuals are very small, as little as $600 every decade.

Although the state’s Native Americans have seen a slight increase in homeownership over the last decade—from 46.1% in 2010
to 48.6%—they still lag far behind the nearly 77% of white families that own homes in Minnesota. The homeownership gap is still greatest for African Americans, where only 25.3% own homes. Many American Indian homeowners in Minnesota are on reservation land leased by tribes or off-reservation lands where tribes have acquired rights through grants from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development agency. And through the Minnesota Housing and Finance Agency, tribes are receiving funding that helps families transition from renting to homeownership.

Climbing the learning curve

One area where Native Americans are closing the opportunity gap is education, one of the strongest predicators of an individual’s economic success. In 2019, 83% of Native Americans obtained a high school degree, marking a 12-point gap with whites who graduated at a rate over 95%. And while 37% of white Minnesotans went on to earn a bachelor’s degree, only 13% of Indians attended college and graduated. The Minnesota Legislature has responded by increasing funds for Native American education, including $18 million in 2016.

From a common heritage to an independent future

Some experts outside the Native American community have proposed that the state’s tribes should pool their casino profits and distribute them evenly for the benefit of all Minnesota’s Native Americans. This would help close the wealth gap between affluent urban tribes like the Shakopee Mdewakanton and rural tribes with fewer resources.

Although the Minnesotan tribes make efforts to partner on some common projects, and sometimes help each other economically, they maintain a high degree of sovereignty and independence, and even compete for business and resources. In fact, the two major groups—the Dakota and Anishinaabe—have a rivalry that predates European settlement and has occasionally led to warfare. So, while they acknowledge shared history and mutual interests, it is unlikely they will unite into a single community. In their long history in Minnesota, they have always put their own families and tribes first among all others. Through it all, though much has been lost and their connection to the land has changed, it is still their source of continuity, strength, and hope for a better future.

Minnesota’s Native American tribes have a storied history and vital cultures that continue thriving today. People in the wider community can support the tribes by attending Pow Wows, and purchasing art, crafts, and foods like wild rice from Native artists and gatherers.