Ventura Opens Government Relations With Tribes

Joined by the state's American Indian leaders, Gov. Jesse Ventura signed an unprecedented executive order Wednesday recognizing the state's government-to-government relations with Indian tribes.

It was the first such tribal recognition by a Minnesota governor in state history, Ventura and tribal leaders said.

"This is a proud day for the state's native people in Minnesota and state government as well," Ventura said.

Leaders from Minnesota's 11 federally recognized reservations presented the governor with gifts including wild rice, a woven blanket and a birch-bark basket before Ventura joined them and traditional Indian dancers as they danced hand-in-hand around the Prairie Island Community Center.

"You will always be welcome in Indian country," Prairie Island President Audrey Bennett told the governor. She said no other Minnesota governor has done as much to respect their sovereignty and improve the relations with tribes.

"You have set a standard that future administrations will be asked to live up to. For that, we forever thank you," said Bennett, who also is chairwoman of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, which is the official liaison between the tribes and the state.

The executive order recognizes a "unique legal relationship" with tribes and the "inherent sovereignty of Indian tribes and their right to existence, self-government and self-determination."

The tribes say it is recognition from the state they have long sought. The order serves as an important symbol of respect and sets up a framework that acknowledges the tribes as self-governed, they say.

"I hope that today we have done something that will help to build an even stronger foundation for respect, trust and cooperation between our respective governments," Ventura said.

However, it was not clear whether an executive order has any standing on tribal relations. A spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office said they were unaware what legal effect an order would have unless it was authorized under law.

After signing the order, Ventura acknowledged that he didn't know much about Indians when he became governor in 1999 and said the state and tribes have not always agreed.

During his first year, he was harshly criticized by tribal leaders when he wrote a letter to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to oppose an application by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux to put land into trust.

Ventura had said putting the 776 acres into trust would harm the local governments by exempting the tribe from paying property taxes and adhering to local zoning laws.

And in March 1999, the leader of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe wrote a letter to Ventura saying she was offended by his criticism of Indian sovereignty and treaty rights while he was in Washington, D.C., for a national's governor's conference.

Mille Lacs Chief Executive Marge Anderson also said was denied a meeting with Ventura because she was told he didn't speak with anyone affiliated with special-interest groups.

Almost four years later, the current Mille Lacs leader, Melanie Benjamin, praised Ventura for recognizing tribal government as legitimate and called Wednesday's executive order "a very historic time for us."

Ventura also received acclaim for inviting tribal leaders to the governor's mansion in St. Paul -- the first invitation for some of the bands.

"This order gives us hope," Bennett said.