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Reconcilable Differences: City-Tribal Relations

By Tad Simons

All over Minnesota, cities and their Native American neighbors are finding ways to work together for the common good.

It all started with a friendly lunch.

Shortly after the 2015 construction of the County Highway 101 bridge connecting Shakopee and Chanhassen, Shakopee City Administrator Bill Reynolds thought the city’s entrance should be marked by something iconic — a monument that honored the storied history of the area and gave the city a distinctive identity.

From left: State Sen. Erik Pratt, Shakopee Mayor Bill Mars, Former SMSC Chairman Charles Vig, and State Rep. Bob Loonan at the unveiling of the statue of Dakota Chief Sakpe. Photo courtesy City of Shakopee

Over lunch with Charlie Vig, who was chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) at the time, Reynolds floated the idea of placing a certain statue at the city entrance. He wanted it to be a statute of Sakpe [pronounced shock-pay], the Dakota leader the city was named for in 1851.

“We needed something to connect us with our history,” Reynolds recalls. But he knew they needed the blessing and support of the SMSC. So, Reynolds asked Vig what he thought of the monument idea, and whether they could work together to build such a statue.

Vig thought for a minute, then replied, “We’ve got a statue.”

It was stored in a nearby barn, he explained, and was once the centerpiece of the roundabout at the entrance to Mystic Lake Casino Hotel, which the SMSC owns and operates. The statue needed to be restored, he said, but the City of Shakopee could use it.

The SMSC agreed to pay for the statue’s restoration, and the result of that casual lunch — a handsome statue of Chief Sakpe standing beside his horse — has welcomed all who enter the city since November 2017.

The statue is a symbol of the evolving spirit of cooperation and trust between the City of Shakopee and its Native American neighbors. And Shakopee isn’t alone in its efforts to build such a partnership. All over Minnesota, cities and Native American communities are finding ways to work together for the common good.

Building trust

That spirit of cooperation hasn’t always existed, says Reynolds. “A decade ago, such an undertaking wouldn’t have been possible. We were suing each other and fighting in court. At some point, we both realized it was all ridiculous, and we weren’t achieving anything.”

The cities of Shakopee and Prior Lake developed an intergovernmental working group with representatives from the SMSC, including Tribal Administrator Bill Rudnicki. The group now meets quarterly to discuss various issues and has opened an avenue of regular communication between leaders of both cities and the SMSC.

Prior Lake Mayor Kirt Briggs, left, and former SMSC chairman Charlie Vig worked together to develop a new water treatment plant to serve both the city and the tribal community. Photo courtesy City of Prior Lake

“I started in 1989, and have been involved in more than 77 agreements,” says Rudnicki. “The one thing I go back to is that you have to have a level of trust between governments. When you have that, agreements can come together.”

Developing strong personal relationships — by the simple act of socializing and getting to know each other — is an important part of the the trust-building process, says Rudnicki. When you have the foundation of friendship, it makes it easier when you have “to get together to work on a hard issue.”

Back in 2015, for example, both the City of Prior Lake and the the SMSC were considering building separate water treatment plants to serve growing populations in both communities. Instead, the two governments agreed to collaborate and build a jointly owned water treatment facility on reservation land, run and managed by the SMSC.

The plant went online in late 2019 and, according to Prior Lake Mayor Kirt Briggs, the two governments saved a combined $11 million and built a facility that will serve the water needs of both communities for at least 20 years.

“The water treatment plant couldn’t have happened if we hadn’t already built relationships with the tribe working on other projects — park systems, trail connections, public safety, police and fire, etc.,” says Briggs. “I can’t overstate the importance of developing those personal relationships.”

City and SMSC leaders meet for breakfast every quarter, and they also have a variety of formal and informal meetings, as well as regular communications via phone and text. “We even play golf together,” Briggs says. “And all those meetings are important because as a city, you really need to understand your tribal neighbors and the issues they are facing.”

Working together

Some cities, such as Mahnomen, which is located on the White Earth Nation in northeast Minnesota, share police services. Others share services for fire and rescue, park maintenance, and snow removal.

The Mille Lacs Band in Pine County has worked to build affordable housing near Hinckley. And in an extraordinary act of cross-community generosity, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe recently shared a surplus of COVID-19 vaccines with many residents of Cass County and other areas surrounding the Leech Lake community.

Aside from the official state agencies overseeing state-tribal relations, these projects and agreements are largely the result of local officials from both city and sovereign tribal governments working together to share strategies and resources that benefit everyone in their respective communities.

This general spirit of cooperation is a remarkable turnaround from a decade or two ago. And officials on both sides say that the key to making these arrangements work is close personal relationships — developed over time and often over meals or other social occasions — that ultimately lead to mutual feelings of trust and respect.

That’s no surprise to Mitchell Berg, a former city administrator for the City of Mahnomen who wrote his doctoral thesis on tribal, county, and municipal cooperation in Minnesota. Berg studied more than 40 different factors in city-tribe relations, and found that in the end, only three really mattered: trust, respect, and personal relationships. Without those three key elements, nothing will ever happen, says Berg.

“It’s about building intentional relationships between tribes and cities, not transactional ones,” says Berg. “Thinking transactionally is a very bad mistake when you are interacting with tribes.”

Indeed, one of the most common errors people make is assuming that all Native American communities are the same, says Berg — and they aren’t. “You really need to understand the governance structure of the tribe you’re working with, and that includes understanding their history — how the tribe was set up, what treaties affected them and how, etc.”

And when reaching out to Native American communities to begin a discussion, “the most important thing to do is listen,” he says, “and to let them know they have been heard.”

He Mni Can-Barn Bluff

In Red Wing, for example, generations of graduates from Red Wing High School have ventured up to Barn Bluff to spray paint their legacy on large slabs of shale embedded in the cliffs overlooking downtown.

Cultural panels at the trailhead of the He Mni Can-Barn Bluff tell the story of the Mdewakanton Dakota people in the Red Wing area. Photo courtesy City of Red Wing

Before Barn Bluff (now He Mni Can- Barn Bluff) was a favorite graffiti spot for Red Wing students, however, it was used for thousands of years by the Dakota people as a sacred ceremonial site. The land around it contains several native burial mounds, as well as one of the richest Native American archeological sites in the country.

To help right this unfortunate historical wrong, the City of Red Wing and nearby Prairie Island Indian Community worked together to change the city’s graffiti policy. This led to a much larger collaborative project to reroute the area’s hiking trails around — not over — burial mounds, and to create an educational entrance at the base of the bluff that includes a series of stone obelisk “cultural panels” honoring both the Dakota and European histories of the region.

He Mni Can [pronounced he-meh- NEE-cha] means “hill, water, wood” in the Dakota language, and the impressive cultural panels that now greet visitors at the trailhead tell the story of the Mdewakanton Dakota people in the area. The panels explain where and how the Dakota lived, why the area’s burial grounds are sacred, and even include buttons people can push to hear the original Dakota language spoken out loud.

“The subtle name change, to have the Dakota place name [He Mni Can] on the welcoming sign here, is symbolic,” says Franky Jackson, compliance officer at the Prairie Island Indian Community. “It speaks of one of the requests the Dakota people wanted, which is to have this place recognized through its Dakota place name. So, having that is incredibly important.”

The project itself also helped solidify a constructive working relationship between the City of Red Wing and the Prairie Island Indian Community. “It was great to have a project that we could work together on,” says Michelle Leise, Red Wing’s community engagement facilitator. “The He Mni Can-Barn Bluff renovation project gave our city government an opportunity to really listen and learn from our neighbors in the Prairie Island community.”

Shakopee Cultural Corridor

Back in Shakopee, a similarly ambitious “cultural corridor” project is taking shape along the Minnesota River, in and around The Landing — Minnesota River Heritage State Park.

The park has long celebrated the arrival of European settlers to the area with historic buildings, crafts demonstrations, and “cultural interpreters” dressed in 19th-century garb. But the more complicated history of the Dakota people, who lived on that same land for thousands of years before European settlers arrived, has been largely overlooked.

In particular, the three original water springs that drew the Dakota to the area are often overgrown with weeds, and erosion of the Minnesota River is threatening to wash away some sacred burial grounds.

“To a lot of people, it’s just a flood plain down there, but to the tribe, it’s a very special place,” says Andy Vig, Charlie Vig’s son and the current director of Hoċokata Ti, the SMSC cultural center and gathering space, which opened in 2019.

“To us it’s really important, because it’s the last place our people lived before they were moved by the 1851 treaty,” says Vig, referring to the 1851 Treaty of Traverse de Sioux, in which the Dakota people sold 21 million acres to the U.S. government for $1.665 million — which was never paid — and were moved to two small reservations along the Minnesota River.

To celebrate the entire history of this area, the City of Shakopee is partnering with the SMSC, Scott County, and the Three Rivers Park District to create a cultural corridor trail that would unite Memorial Park and Huber Park, and educate visitors about how the original inhabitants of the river basin lived.

One of the more creative ideas for the project is to use “augmented reality” to give visitors an idea of what life was like in an actual Dakota village, including sacred practices and rituals.

“It’s so hard to put who we are on a panel in a few hundred words,” says Andy Vig. “So, it’s important for our kids, and the public in general, to show them that area by the river. There’s a lot to see down there, and a lot of teaching can go on.”

The Shakopee Cultural Corridor is still in the planning stages and is awaiting a $3.5 million grant to begin restoring eroded riverbanks along the Minnesota River. But in the future, city leaders believe the corridor could eventually stretch all the way to Fort Snelling, giving Minnesotans an opportunity to learn even more about the intertwined histories of Native Americans and European settlers in the region.

“There are thousands of years of history down there, and we have an incredible story to tell,” says Shakopee’s Bill Reynolds. “But I can tell you that none of it could happen if we hadn’t built mutually respectful and genuinely caring relationships with each other. We may not always agree, but as long as we can keep the lines of communication open, the opportunities are unbounded, and it allows us to do some things that are just phenomenal.” In other words, never underestimate the power of a friendly lunch.

Tad Simons is a freelance writer.