Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) speaks to Red Lake Nation leaders. Seated at Franken's right is Chairman Darrell G. Seki, Sr. Photo by Michael Meuers
Sunday afternoon on October 19, 2014, found the Red Lake Tribal Council Headquarters a busy place as two U.S. Senators visited with tribal leaders about issues of concern to the Red Lake Nation. Senator John Tester (D-Montana), who chairs the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, was joined by Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota), a member of the committee. Several tribal council members participated in a conversation about Indian Country and the government-to-government relationship between Red Lake Nation and the United States. Tribal Council Officers Chairman Darrell G. Seki, Sr., Secretary Donald Cook, and Secretary Annette Johnson, were joined by council members Gary Nelson and Randy "Jiggs" Kingbird of Ponemah, and Little Rock council members Robert "Charlie" Reynolds and Richard Barrett. Chief Greeting Spears also attended. The informal meeting began with the tribal council expressing concerns to the two US Senators. Chairman Seki brought up an issue mentioned in his inaugural address that continues to be on his agenda. "We need to be able to prosecute non-members who bring drugs to our reservation. They come up from the Twin Cities with their drugs and endanger our youth. We need to be able to deal with this," said Seki. Franken, saying he understood, pointed out that "recently the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs passed legislation that enables Indian tribes to prosecute non-members for domestic violence, maybe drugs comes next," he said. "We've had a bit of trouble in this area of debate," Franken added. "There is a perception that non-members cannot get a fair trial in any Indian court. We need to deal with that issue. Passing this kind of legislation is even more difficult," he said, "because so many states do not have Indian reservations and simply do not understand the issues. We will continue to educated them." The tribal council since that time passed a resolution to allow banishment of non-members who bring drugs on the reservation. "What can we do?" asked Secretary Don Cook. "We’ve got problems with drugs, jobs, and employment." He also spoke of a recent murder and suicide. "We need money for education, this is vital for economic development and jobs," said Seki. "All these issues are related." Little Rock Representative Richard Barrett brought up the need for housing saying that he knows of a family of 12 people living in one-bedroom home. "We need money for Indian Housing, not money from the BIA," he said. Ponemah Representative Gary Nelson spoke of roads. "The formula favors small reservations, it doesn’t work for us. The larger reservations monies are based on the workforce instead of population, that needs to be changed," he said. Franken said he had an extensive list of federal Indian affairs programs he'd like to see receive more funding. "I agree with Chairman Seki that these issues on the reservation are interconnected," he said, "…for example, the lack of housing that Representative Barrett speaks of forces families to live in domestic violence situations, which can imprint on the children who witness the violence." Franken addressed the serious business of drug abuse, domestic violence and health care access on the reservation. "Chairman Seki, yes we are underfunding things like BIE (the Bureau of Indian Education) and health care and law enforcement," he said. "As you say, everything's tied into everything else. When you don't have housing, and you have two or three families living together as Representative Barrett noted, and one of those families is having some pathologies, then all the kids have to witness that." Franken looking for concurrence by Tester said, "we are doing some investigations into the BIA, I think they are being less than honest with you," he said admitting the federal government isn't doing enough to help reservations. "It's really about priorities, and we really don't prioritize this enough," he said. "I have frustrations with all of it." Seki then called on several tribal members attending the meeting who wished to address the Senators. Darlene Lussier, director of Ikwe Wiigamig said that she appreciates the work that Franken has done to work with tribes regarding domestic violence. Franken, speaking to both Lussier and Seki, again mentioned that he felt good about the Senate Committee for Indian Affairs passing legislation enabling the tribe to prosecute non-members for domestic violence. "We didn't do it for political reasons," said Franken, "we did it for justice." Tim Sumner, Red Lake member and Beltrami County Commissioner spoke of out of home child placement services. "The state of Minnesota has provided $3 million to alleviate county costs," said Sumner, "but more is needed and because of Red Lake's unique sovereignty the money should really be coming from the Federal government." "We do prioritize or we'd get nothing done," said Tester, "we need to, there so much to do in Indian Country. Sometimes we have trouble getting our argument across as there are so many states without Indian reservations and that makes it harder for them to learn. But rest assured, we know we have a trust responsibility."
Al Franken came to the Red Lake Nation powwow during his 2008 campaign. File photo by Michael Meuers
Time running short, Franken concluded by telling an amusing story of his first trip to Red Lake and his initiation to powwow dancing in 2008, the year he first ran for the Senate. "During my first campaign six years ago, my staff advised me that if I attended the powwow at Red Lake to not dance. But as I was watching the dancers, one young man invited me to join him. I addressed the crowd and said 'only if you don't make fun of me after I leave,'" Franken said to the crowds amusement. "As I was dancing and chatting with several dancers, one woman started making fun of me. I immediately reminded her of the conditions of my dancing, and she said, (to laughter in the council chambers) 'you said after you leave…you’re still here.'" Franken began to have fun with it and also danced with several young girls. He received much applause an appreciation from the attendees.
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