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White Earth leaders address drug epidemic, poverty

The people of White Earth came together for the annual State of the Nation address at the Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen Tuesday to hear the good, the bad and the ugly of reservation life over the past year.

It was a year that included the resignation of longtime White Earth Chair Erma Vizenor, who stepped down amid allegations of constitutional reform violations. In her absence, Interim White Earth Chair Steven “Punky” Clark was the main keynote speaker. Clark is White Earth’s District 1 Representative. He started out talking about efforts to keep oil pipelines off reservation land.

“White Earth has endured an international pipeline that threatens our sacred food, manoomin, and we stood together with other Tribal Nations,” said Clark. “The stakes could not have been higher, and we endured. Our unity strengthens us.”

Clark told that crowd that as a response to what he called “threats”, White Earth joined forces with other tribes to form the 1855 Treaty Authority and that recently their treaty rights were reinforced by federal courts.

“Which is a tremendous victory for our people,” said Clark “Our unity has influenced the State of Minnesota to introduce legislation that excludes tribal members from needing wild rice harvesting permits outside of reservation boundaries. We are just getting started.”

Clark went on to talk about an issue that has made headlines over the past year - drugs. Mahnomen County has the highest heroin overdose rate in Minnesota.

“The tribe knows the heroin epidemic has touched our communities, and we are responding to it with the help of other law enforcement agencies,” said Clark, who said last month White Earth Police coordinated a drug bust with the FBI, ATF and local law enforcement. Officers arrested five people and seized drugs, weapons and money from residences in the village of Naytahwaush, while removing several young children from the homes.

He also talked about Operation Bricks of Steel, where nine of 41 federal arrest warrants were executed on White Earth without incident.

“We removed Omar Beasley and 40 of his associates off the streets,” said Clark, who applauded collaboration among law enforcement agencies. “White Earth has an internal drug task force that works hard to remove drugs from our communities. We have a long road ahead of us to address substance abuse, and we will get to our destination together.”

Poverty was also a topic at the State of the Nation address, as Clark told the crowd that 44 percent of Anishinaabe live at or below the poverty level. Over half of the reservation’s children live in poverty, and close to half of the Anishinaabe on White Earth aged 16 to 64 are unemployed or not in the workforce.

“Close to 20 percent of Anishinaabe homes have no wage earner, and a third of our members meet the federal definition of homelessness,” said Clark. “This is our reality. I won’t lie to you and say that everything is fine, and that everything is well, because the fact is we must solve these issues together.”

The reservation added a community service resource officer to work with communities by planning events and helping White Earth residents better connect with law enforcement.

“He (Officer Curtis Rogers) is already spearheading and bringing community activities back with basketball tournaments, and he will work closely to support youth and culture,” said Clark, who encouraged the crowd to use the reservation’s newly-created anonymous tip line.

“I know that we can’t fix the drug problem with law enforcement alone,” said Clark. “We need to work closely with our community councils, elders, and youth to figure out new ways to solve the drug problem.”

Clark said this year over 100 tribal employees were trained to administer Naloxone or Narcan for overdose situations, and since then, at least 16 lives have been saved on White Earth.

On-reservation drug and mental health resources like the Oshki-Manidoo Youth Treatment Center, Women’s Wellbriety Center, Circle Back Center, Dually Involved Youth and Juvenile Healing to Wellness, and Acute Care Men’s Inpatient Treatment were all applauded for their work.

“The Men’s center integrates a sweat lodge on site, talking circles, naming ceremonies, men’s roles, and seasonal and traditional activities,” said Clark. “The work our people are doing is incredible.”

Clark also talked about a new program implemented on White Earth this past year called “MOMS”, or the Maternal Outreach and Mitigation Service, which has already helped 48 mothers, babies and families with addiction and recovery.

“And at one point we reduced that number to just one,” said Clark. “This shows how we can change things together.”

Although the programs are there to help with problems, Clark told the crowd that what they needed to do was to stop the problems before they happen by focusing efforts on wellness and the economy, going on to talk about the success the Circle of Life Academy has seen over the past year.

“This past year COLA hired Ricky White as Superintendent, and received a $2 million Bureau of Indian Education School Improvement Grant,” said Clark. “Our enrollments have jumped from 125 students to 170 students. And we have celebrated our first ever homecoming, with a pep fest and royalty.” The Warrior football team not only played its first homecoming game, but went on to an undefeated season.

“We are making history,” said Clark, who also talked about some success stories at Pine Point School as well.

Transparency in government was also a topic of discussion Tuesday, as Clark told the crowd about a Strategic Plan the Tribal Council is creating for the next 10 years.

“It integrates our traditional values and strives for transparent decisions, public policy development, and pronounced public engagement,” said Clark. “To help see this through, we have made Alan Roy part of our team as our director of strategic affairs to help spearhead this effort. We hope to publish the plan by the end of summer.”

With the future in mind, Clark also talked about the fact that White Earth introduced four bills to the Minnesota Legislature worth more than $6 million.

“Because we recognize the importance of our economy, we have also introduced an economic disparities and economic development bill this session as a response to Governor Dayton’s call to end economic disparities,” said Clark. “We are calling our effort to address economic disparity the “White Earth Integrated Business Development System.”

Clark said that outside of North Minneapolis, White Earth is the only organization, tribal and non-tribal, to answer this call.

“By collaborating with the City of Mahnomen and Mahnomen County, we have secured $1 million in the Senate with nine grants available to increase our funding,” said Clark. “There are no guarantees for funding at this point, but our collaboration remains promising.”

A small business incubation program was also on Clark’s radar, as he said their hope is to recruit and train local small business owners over the next couple of years and to get them into actual business locations in Mahnomen.

“This isn’t about giving people jobs, it’s about people creating opportunities for themselves,” said Clark. “The time for wishing has passed, and the time for doing has arrived.”

A new workforce center called “Maadaadizi” is near completion in Naytahwaush as well, which is designed to help with employment and training programs.

On a bright note, Clark said within tribal government, White Earth increased its workforce from 44 percent tribal members to 67 percent.

In an effort to promote business and separation of powers, Clark said White Earth leaders have created a separate gaming commission independent of the Tribal Council.

“Our new gaming ordinance should be approved by the National Indian Gaming Commission soon,” he said, adding that to jump-start their economy, they are opening up two new casinos - one in Bagley and one near Star Lake.

“The Bagley casino will cost $10 million with a return on investment in five years—after that, net profits will support White Earth,” said Clark, who says the Star Lake casino is still under development.

“These gaming establishments will expand opportunities for local businesses and provide jobs to support the local economy, while creating an additional revenue source to spur development and meet the needs of our members,” he said.

White Earth Secretary-Treasurer Tara Mason also took to the stage, telling the crowd that in an effort to be more transparent in government, she would begin giving a treasurer’s report as well, saying that White Earth’s expenditures this past year were $64.7 million with another expected increase in 2016. She said that money goes towards services directly provided to their members, with Human Services being the costliest at $15 million and Health Services costing $14.3 million.

More is being spent on increasing drug and alcohol treatment services, she said, also touching on financial reports from the Shooting Star Casino.

“Revenue is up, but our actual net income is down, and with that comes some explanations that should be given to you as tribal members,” said Mason, who says higher wages are now being paid to grave and weekend shift workers there.

“We’re also making improvement and strives on things in the casino as well,” said Mason, pointing out the new carpet and new lighting.

“And we’re looking at more updates and adding additional air fresheners because this is our investment; this is the backbone of what helps a lot of our tribal programs and services on the reservation.”