BEMIDJI — Representatives of the Leech Lake tribal government and the Bemidji City Council held a joint meeting Monday that marked the formal beginning of relations between the two government bodies.
The meeting, held at the Sanford Center, began with an exchange of gifts and an invocation. Short presentations followed, introducing each body to one another by summarizing their history, structure and future goals.
“There is so much that our governments don’t know about each other,” said Irene Folstrom, Leech Lake government relations manager.
Folstrom gave a presentation on the band’s history, highlighting their past relationships with outside bodies such as the state and federal governments. This history includes breaking treaties with Leech Lake and other Indigenous groups and illegally confiscating tribal lands.
“We have a really complicated history,” Folstrom said. “But we’re all more than willing to sit down and have conversations with you to tell you our history and why we are the way we are today.”
Another note Folstrom made was the recognition of the importance of having two indigenous members on the Bemidji City Council. Both Audrey Thayer, Ward 1, and Daniel Jourdain, Council Member at Large are members of the Leech Lake Band.
Following these introductory themes, representatives from both groups expressed their gratitude for the meeting and acknowledged the common goals of their respective governing bodies.
Among these common goals and the next topic of discussion was the issue of improving public safety. City Manager Nate Mathews brought up the established Police Advisory Committee, which is due to hold its first meeting in February.
The goal of this committee will be to improve trust and communication between law enforcement and the community. The committee has nine seats, and its members were chosen from 25 applicants, partly with the aim of being a diverse representation of Bemidji.
“We know there’s a number of things happening in our community that are very difficult and very challenging,” said Mayor Jorge Prince, who campaigned for the committee’s establishment. “As mayor, I definitely want every one of our citizens to go to bed at night and be safe and feel safe.”
Within the public safety issue, certain issues specifically affected the Native American community, such as the ongoing tragedy of missing and murdered Native American women commonly referred to as MMIW, and the fact that Beltrami County has the highest rate of Native American incarcerated juveniles nationwide.
“We all need to feel safe and secure and comfortable wherever we go and whatever we do as citizens,” said Arthur LaRose, Leech Lake secretary and treasurer.
recognition and visibility
Another topic discussed during the joint meeting was the possibility of displaying flags representing the Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth reservations in the Bemidji City Hall meeting rooms. This has been brought up for discussion before, but no formal decision has been made.
Leech Lake officials endorsed the idea and expressed how important a visible sign of recognition can be for members of the Indigenous community.
“There is a sense of pride that their nation is represented in the city of Bemidji,” said Robert Budreau, Jr., Executive Director of Leech Lake. “I think it’s a good move for relationship building.”
It also raised the issue of some businesses in Bemidji not recognizing tribal ID cards as a valid form of identification. This problem is partly due to a lack of education about tribal IDs, which are similar to state IDs but can also be used for travel between the US and Canada.
“It’s about recognizing that we exist and that we are a sovereign nation,” Budreau said. “Our people have fought long and hard to be recognized and to say we’re still here.”
The city council agreed to consider steps that would improve education about different types of ID cards to address this issue.
Both Leech Lake and the Council mentioned issues that would need to be revisited at a future joint meeting, including future partnerships on affordable housing issues and the possibility of creating a day work program in Bemidji modeled on that in Leech Lake.
“I hope we can continue to bring our leadership together as we do,” Jourdain said. “And I hope that we can serve these people and everyone as best we can.”