An Offer They Could Refuse

On the western prairie, tribal leaders have a message for governor Pawlenty: Back off

Last month, after Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Republican Party revived their public push to solve Minnesota's looming budget crisis on the backs of Native American tribes, Helen Blue-Redner responded with a demand of her own: a challenge that the governor meet her in a face-to-face debate. Blue-Redner, the Princeton-educated chairwoman of the Upper Sioux Community, figured she might be able to set the governor straight on some elemental matters of Indian gaming and law. Perhaps she might even get Pawlenty to acknowledge the considerable gall of his noisy, election-season demands for a "fair deal" from Minnesota Indians--a group that, as any schoolchild knows, has been on the wrong end of some of the most egregiously unfair deals in the state's history.

Not surprisingly, Pawlenty, whose opposition to the expansion of gaming in Minnesota has dissipated like a budget surplus, didn't take Blue-Redner up on her offer. Instead, the governor summoned Minnesota's 11 tribal chairs to a private meeting in St. Paul, where he proposed they "discuss" his plan that the tribes cough up $350 million annually--or face the prospect of Las Vegas-style competition.

The gambit did not go over well with the tribes. Only two tribal representatives showed for the meeting--Leech Lake chair George Goggleye and White Earth chair Erma Vizenor--and both were quick to let the governor know that the state's largest and poorest bands have no money to share. Instead, they took the opportunity to resuscitate a proposal that the state allow the northern tribes to build a metro area casino, under a tribal/state profit sharing scheme yet to be determined.

"I was very disgusted": Helen Blue-Redner of the Upper Sioux Community
Courtesy of Blue-Redner
"I was very disgusted": Helen Blue-Redner of the Upper Sioux Community

Blue-Redner, like nine of the eleven other tribal CEOs , declined the opportunity to meet Pawlenty for what would be, in essence, a private shakedown. But Blue-Redner did talk to City Pages about what she would have liked to say to the governor in a public debate. Nearing the end of her first term as the chairwoman of the Upper Sioux, Blue-Redner, who has presided over a relatively prosperous period in the 440-member community's recent history, did not mince words in her denunciation of Pawlenty and the new generation of Indian fighters.

With its remote location in rural far western Minnesota (near the town of Granite Falls), Blue-Redner points out, the Upper Sioux's Prairie's Edge Casino has not made the Upper Sioux rich. But it has improved the standard of living on the reservation, where median family income now hovers around $25,000. In other words, it has done precisely what Congress intended in passing the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988: lifted the Upper Sioux tribal members out of abject poverty.

 

City Pages: After Pawlenty made his demand for a cut of tribal money, you said you wanted to publicly debate him. Did the governor respond? And what are the points you most wanted to make?

Helen Blue-Redner: No, I never did get a direct response from the governor's office. I did see his chief of staff at our second annual tribal dignitaries meeting. The only thing he said is that the governor is still anxious to have a discussion with all the chairs, which I know he is, because he still thinks he'll get the $350 million. The reason I wanted to debate is that I want the public to understand the tribes don't have any legal commitment to revenue sharing with the state. We're not Connecticut. We're not New Mexico. We're not California. We have different compacts in this state.

I think a debate would also help clarify the legalities of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. There is a section in the act that prohibits states from taxing tribes. The governor is trying to enact a de facto tax that puts the burdens of the state on the backs of Indian people. Whatever no-new-taxes pledge he took, that is of his own making. Whatever decisions were made by the legislature that resulted in these multimillion dollar deficits, that's of their own making. This should be a shared burden on all of the state's citizens, not the Indian people

CP: Pawlenty seems to think that $350 million constitutes a reasonable contribution from the tribes. Did the size of that figure surprise you?

Blue-Redner: I was very disgusted, but I wasn't surprised. We're in a political climate that lends credibility to such demands. On the other hand, I'm very heartened to see so many people speak out against it.

CP: How did people from the Upper Sioux Community react?

Blue-Redner: It's been a very harmonious response, and we don't often have that. I think the people of the Upper Sioux Community are happy that our leadership told the governor we will have no part of his extortion demand.

CP: Do you think Pawlenty really wants to bring Vegas-style gambling to Minnesota, or do you think it's just a bluff to bring the tribes to the tables?

Blue-Redner: In the past, I always thought it was a bluff. Now I think he is serious about this. Failing that, I think he's going to keep leaning on the tribes. I don't think it's good leadership on his part to go back on his word. He came into office on the platform that he would not support an expansion of gambling as recently as last February. At the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe legislative dinner, Lt. Governor [Carol] Molnau said, to rousing applause, that the governor's office wouldn't support an expansion of gambling. Everyone talks about flip-flopping, well, here you've got it.

CP: What do you think is the biggest misconception about Indian gaming?

Blue-Redner: That everybody's getting rich. Not that it should be anyone else's concern, because it really isn't. We don't make it a practice to ask people what they make, and I don't think anyone should do that to Indian people. We are sovereign nations, and we have a sovereign right to game. The state of Minnesota has no more right to ask Indian tribes to resolve the budget deficits than it has to ask the state of Alaska or Hawaii.

CP: Describe how casino gambling has changed the lives of people in the Upper Sioux community.

Blue-Redner: We're making a lot of progress. Day-to-day lives have improved dramatically. Our mortality and morbidity rates are declining. We've gone from an unemployment rate upwards of 70 percent down to an unemployment rate well below 10 percent. Before gaming, we had a median per capita income of less than $7,000. We're talking about people who in the past didn't have the means to own a home, flush a toilet, or turn on a tap and have running water. So that's the sort of improvement we've seen in the last decade.

And of course that was the primary objective of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988--to help improve the quality of life for Native Americans because, let's face it, we have not been equal participants over the years. My grandma used to say we're pretty lousy capitalists because we haven't had the same experience everyone else had. We're very new to money, so we're still struggling.

CP: Before the election, the Republican Party ran radio ads blaming Democrats for "giving away the casino monopoly" and saying, "Vote for a fair deal on tribal casinos. Vote Republican." What did you think of that?

Blue-Redner: The GOP lost 13 seats in the House, in part because of its attacks on Indian people, but the governor has done a good job of dredging up a lot of anti-Indian sentiment. It's the wrong thing to do, and I think he knows that. It doesn't mean that he's going to stop. To me, this is racial profiling, and it's also economic profiling. As far as the fair share statement goes, Minnesota has gotten its fair share and then some. A lot of then some, including hundreds of millions of dollars in [construction and other casino-related] purchases and a lot of job creation. Probably 85 percent of the people who work in tribal gaming are non-Indian. They all have benefits. They all have retirement plans. It's been more than a fair deal for the state of Minnesota.

CP: Nine of the eleven tribal governments did not meet with Pawlenty, but leaders from Leech Lake and White Earth did. Has that had any effect on the relations between the tribes?

Blue-Redner: I don't think it has much of an effect. Tribal leaders, like any other leaders, have to make decisions based on the best interests of their constituents. But if there is going to be a metro casino from which some of the Indian tribes might benefit, I think those benefits will be temporary. All you have to do is look at our treaty history, our land history, our boarding school history, and now our gaming history to know that, as far as Indian people are concerned, a deal is not a deal. It never has been, and it never will be.

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