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A space for representation

This story is part of a partnership between Bethel University’s journalism program and ICT.

Sarah Bakeman
Special to ICT

ST. PAUL, Minn. – Visitors arrived at Minnesota’s Capitol May 6 to a beat thundering across the granite steps. The sound came from the Bear Runner drum group – seven men circled around a taut drumhead, their clothed mallets creating a welcoming anthem for the annual American Indian Day on the Hill.

Spiritual leader and Lakota tribe citizen Jerry Dearly-Blessing kicked off the event for guests in the Capitol’s Rotunda. His voice echoed under a four-paneled mural entitled “Civilization of the Northwest: The American Genius,” an idealized 19th-century painting that chronicled Minnesota’s evolution.

“This capital is ours,” Dearly-Blessing said. “This is a place where we are to be represented and heard. We have a new relationship built on trust and partnership.”

In its third year, the event continues to serve as an acknowledgment of the government-to-government relationship between Minnesota and the 11 sovereign tribes that reside on the land. Discussions of the day centered around the intertwined history of the two groups, active restorative work and a call for Native populations to continue showing up in government settings.

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Lt. Gov. and White Earth Band of Ojibwe citizen Peggy Flanagan stood behind the podium to encourage conversations that would happen over frybread tacos during the designated networking lunch. She also gave a nod to achievements that have resulted from previous work between Minnesota and sovereign tribes: Indigenous Education for All, the Minnesota Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives Office and increased opportunities for tribes to provide their own policing.

“The conversations you’ll have with your elected officials will be powerful,” Flanagan said. “Many of these conversations have just started to happen around this building, and we’re already seeing incredible results.”

American Indian Day at the Capitol attendees gather in The Vault room of the Capitol, networking over frybread tacos, in St. Paul, Minn., Monday, May 6, 2024. (Devanie Andre, Bethel University’s journalism program)

Gov. Tim Walz followed, addressing his own Mankato origins. In 1862, the largest mass execution in United States history took place in Mankato, with the hanging of 38 Dakota men after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Walz acknowledged the “special responsibility to talk about the past” he feels in his role due to this event, as well as the historical exclusion of sovereign tribes from key decisions in the state.

“I want to be clear, none of us should be patted on the back for doing what’s right, for doing what we should do,” Walz said. “We’re not responsible for what happened back then, but we’re certainly responsible for today and how we respond.”

Walz then shifted to a look at the future, pointing to the Minnesota state flag on his left. The state flag and seal are set to be officially updated May 11. The previous design, created in 1893, features a white settler plowing a field as a Native American man rides away into the sunset. The new seal will feature a loon, water and wild rice, with text reading Mni Sóta Makoc – the original Dakota word for “Minnesota,” meaning “where the water meets the sky.”

This year’s American Indian Day on the Hill came 100 years after the enactment of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act. According to the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State, the act was partially a recognition of “the thousands of Native Americans who served in the armed forces during the First World War.” Many of these Native soldiers died fighting for a country where they could not yet vote.

After a century, Native populations continue to struggle with barriers to engagement in America’s political system. According to research conducted by the Native American Rights Fund, only 66 percent of the known eligible Native American population is registered to vote. This leaves over one million eligible Native voters unregistered.

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In his speech, Secretary of State Steve Simon shared recent efforts to make voting more accessible on tribal land. Upon request, counties in Minnesota on or near Indian land must provide an absentee polling location for at least one day every election. This summer, the Secretary of State’s Office will release a video guide to voting and elections, fully in the Ojibwe language.

“The people in this building take notice. You are getting their attention,” Simon said. “I want to be with you not only here, but in all 11 sovereign communities.”

State Sen. and Standing Rock Lakota descendent Mary Kunesh spoke on the importance of Native representation in government. She recalled speaking with elders who did not know they could vote in general elections – they thought they were restricted to tribal elections.

Minnesota state Sen. and Standing Rock Lakota descendent Mary Kunesh spoke on the importance of Native representation in government on Monday, May 6, 2024. She recalls speaking with elders who did not know they could vote in general elections – they thought they were restricted to tribal elections. (Devanie Andre, Bethel University’s journalism program)

“All these years, they could’ve been voting for local school boards, city council, country commissioners, any one of the people that represents them,” Kunesh said. “It’s important that we remind them time and time again that representation really does matter.”

Kunesh celebrated the 300 elected positions filled by Natives nationally, but touched on a disparity in representation. She shared that Native Americans make up at least 3.4 percent of the nation’s population and hold 0.06 percent of elected offices. To reach proportional representation, 17,000 elected representatives would be needed.

Mike Forcia, a Bad River Tribe citizen and activist who made headlines in 2020 for tearing down the Columbus statue on Capitol grounds, has seen an indifference towards voting play out in his own community.

“We are so far behind. One of the things I notice, we have an attitude that if we participate then we’re one of the colonizers,” Forcia said. “As opposed to ‘we have to work from within, we have to get these people together so we can deconstruct the systems, we need Native people in office.’”

Like many of the other attendees, Forcia came with papers and business cards, ready to discuss personal, Indigenous-focused projects and non-profits. For Forcia, it’s the Red Road Village plan, a proposal for East Phillips Park in Minneapolis to be given to the Dakota and Anishinaabe people and transformed into a tiny home village with culturally-based addiction treatment and employment opportunities.

American Indian Day at the Capitol in St. Paul, Minn., Monday, May 6, 2024. (Devanie Andre, Bethel University’s journalism program)

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Shelley Buck, an enrolled citizen of the Prairie Island Indian Community, serves as the president of Owámniyomni Okhódayapi. The non-profit seeks to restore the area around the Mississippi River’s St. Anthony Falls, which is currently occupied by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and protect the Twin Cities’ falls from further hydroelectric generation. Buck shared plans with other non-profit leaders over fry bread.

“We’re here to celebrate the accomplishments, but also to be visible,” Buck said. “We’re still here.”

White Earth Nation citizen Sasina Samreth came to represent her employer, the American Indian Family Center. Samreth works as a treatment coordinator, assisting in AIFC’s mission to serve American Indian families with mental health, recovery, employment, housing and family services.

“It’s nice when they have these two communities come together and network,” Samreth said. “We come here in a shared space where we all belong.”

At the event’s close, attendees gathered on the granite steps of the Capitol building to watch four elders be honored with star quilts draped around their shoulders – a symbol of honor rooted in Lakota warrior and hunter tradition. After a procession to shake hands with the elders, some returned to the stairs, sitting to smell the burning sweetgrass and listen to a thundering drum circle.

Sarah Bakeman, a journalism and organizational communications double-major, graduates in May from Bethel University, where she has spent four years as a reporter and editor. She’s written profiles and issue stories in her college newsroom, the Southwest Twin Cities metro, Fort Myers and India.

Devanie Andre is a junior graphic design major and photojournalism minor at Bethel University, she has spent a year designing and photographing for her university’s student newspaper, The Clarion. She has taken photos and reported in Haryana, India for Bethel’s Textura 2024 Magazine.

Angela Gonzalez is a senior English and journalism major who graduates in May. From Marshall, Minn. she has dreams of writing or editing fiction. She wrote social justice stories and took photos for Bethel’s Textura India 2024 magazine.

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