Boozhoo! I hope all Band families are enjoying the holiday sea- son. This is the time of year when I prepare the annual State of the Band Address, which I will be delivering to Band members on January 14. This duty to provide the State of the Band Address is required of the Chief Executive by our Band Statutes, the law that governs the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
Despite being a short month, December was packed with meetings of importance to the Band. Just a few examples include a meeting of the Tribal Executive Committee of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, a last-minute trip to Washington D.C. for a signing ceremony when the President announced the creation of a task force on missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Native women and children, a two-day Cabinet meeting with the Commissioners and Solicitor General, and a meeting in St. Paul with the Mille Lacs Band delegates to the MCT Constitutional Convention.
I was also so excited to attend the swearing-in ceremony of our new Commissioner of Finance, Mille Lacs Band member Mel Towle! This was a big moment for the Band, as we now have a highly qualified Mille Lacs Band member watching over our finances and investments.
While it is the primary duty of the Executive Branch Commissioners to administer all Band government programs and services, one of the most important responsibilities a Chief Executive has under the Band Statutes is to represent the Band and conduct diplomacy with other governments. Under Title 4 of our statutes, section 6 (c) says clearly that among the Chief Executive's powers and duties is: "To conduct external relations with all other governments and their political subdivisions." As a result of this duty to conduct external government affairs, I am required to state the position of the Band to Presidents, Governors, Senators, and members of the United States House of Representatives.
In addition, there are state legislators and county boards that need to hear our positions — as well as the state Attorney General and the Governor’s Cabinet. When these government officials and the Band do not see eye-to-eye, it is the diplomatic job of the Chief Executive to advocate for the Band’s position. The Government Affairs Office serves as the Chief’s staff on local, state, and federal government affairs issues. The Chief Executive sets the priorities, and the Government Affairs team provides support and advice. Our Washington D.C. lobbyists and our state lobbyists report to our Government Affairs Office. As a team, they provide status reports regarding emerging state and federal issues, make recommendations, and carry out directives that advance the Band’s legislative and policy interests.
Based on recommendations from our team, my calendar is often filled with meetings and phone calls where I’m required to speak with state and federal officials to advocate for the Band’s position and needs, including follow-up to ensure our issues remain on their radar. For example, I had many meetings with former Governor Dayton on our law enforcement agreement from 2016 to 2018. We were looking for help from the state, and eventually the Governor himself put up funding for a mediation process that was ultimately successful. During this period, I also made many trips to Washington D.C. during that time seeking federal support for our public safety crisis. As a result of our advocacy work, the Bureau of Indian Affairs sent out federal BIA police to assist with law enforcement, and also federally deputized our Band law enforcement officers.
When I was Commissioner of Administration, I used to make these trips with the late Chief Executive Arthur Gahbow. He told me that some people think these trips are fun — and they never are. He was right. These trips are always a whirlwind of meetings on Capitol Hill and at federal agency offices, including early morning or late evening meetings just to prepare for the meetings. The Band has a great team in Washington D.C. and I always tell them that I can’t leave D.C. without getting at least one important task done for Band members.
While our staff and team provide critical advice, they don’t always agree on the right approach. In those situations, it is my role to weigh all the information very carefully and make the strategic decisions about the best next steps. Also, the federal bureaucracy can move extremely slowly. Every once in a while I get a feeling in my gut that I should, for example, go to the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington D.C. and stay there until the person we need to meet with agrees to do so, and we get the answers we need. This is partly from experience, and partly an instinct I have picked up from advocating for the Band for three decades.
There’s an old saying, "If you want to travel fast, go alone. If you want to travel far, go in a group." As part of my statutory duty to conduct government affairs, as Chief Executive I also sit on many boards which are dedicated to Indian Country causes from the aged, to housing, to justice, to advancing the leadership skills of girls and promoting good financial practices on reservations. I choose board membership carefully and ensure that my service results in a positive impact for Indian Country, which benefits the Band. These networks also provide benefits to the Band.
I take the responsibility of representing your issues very seriously, and I get calls from our Senators, Representatives, and the Governor from time to time asking for advice on your issues. I am honored by this, but I keep in mind that I do these things for you, the Band members — and I am kept humble by reminding myself that I am your public servant. My team and I have brought your needs to the highest levels of government, and we advocate for you. That is my job, and as my mentor Art Gahbow taught me, I always have to make sure I get something done for you.
I look forward to providing Band members with more detailed information about this work at the State of the Band Address, and hope to see many Band members there on January 14. Chi Miigwech!