Sovereignty Wins in Mni Sota Makoce

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz called the state’s 2023 legislative session “the most successful…certainly in many of our lifetimes and maybe in Minnesota history.” Notably, the session delivered major wins for Tribal sovereignty, reflecting decades of advocacy by Native people and nations. 

In 2023, Mni Sota Makoce adopted a new flag and seal, passed a new “Indigenous Education for All” mandate, and moved to return Upper Sioux Agency State Park to the Upper Sioux Community. Tim Walz and Peggy Flanagan became the first Governor and Lieutenant Governor in state history to visit all 11 Native nations sharing geography with the state. And, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Upper Sioux Community partnered on a new type of dual-language highway signage. 

Below, we unpack why these wins at the state level are significant for Tribal sovereignty. While progress made in 2023 is a step in the right direction, the work to strengthen sovereignty is never done. We look forward to tracking new developments in 2024. 

State Flag and Seal Redesign

In December 2023, Mni Sota Makoce unveiled the final designs for its new state flag and state seal. Featuring two blue panels and an eight-pointed star, the new flag is expected to make its debut on May 11, 2024. The new seal depicts the state bird, the loon, and will begin to appear on official documents in May 2024. 

Why did Mni Sota Makoce undergo this redesign? In addition to having a complicated, cluttered, and hard-to-recognize design, the previous flag and seal are undeniably racist. The previous seal design, which was also the centerpiece of the state flag, dates back to 1849. It foregrounded a white farmer while showing a Native person riding off into the sunset. State Representative Mike Freiberg, who sponsored the initial redesign bill, called the previous design a “cluttered genocidal mess.” 

The State Emblems Redesign Commission, created by the state Legislature, reviewed thousands of crowdfunded submissions. They also held dozens of meetings before agreeing on the final designs. 

Why it’s a win: Native people and nations have been speaking out about the harm caused by Mni Sota Makoce’s state flag for decades. The thirteen-member Commission included five Indigenous people. Indigenous voices were clearly heard during the process. The final seal design includes “Mni Sota Makoce,” the Dakota phrase from which the state’s name originates. The change recognizes the power of their advocacy and honors the eleven sovereign Native nations sharing geography with the state.

Indigenous Education for All

Another of the many wins to come out of Mni Sota Makoce’s groundbreaking 2023 legislative session is the state’s new “Indigenous Education for All” initiative. “Indigenous Education for All” mandates that teachers in Mni Sota Makoce receive professional development related to “the cultural heritage and contemporary contributions of American Indians” when renewing their licenses. This professional development should focus specifically on the eleven Native nations sharing geography with the state and urban Indigenous communities. 

To support the initiative, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) recently announced a new grant program in partnership with the Minneapolis Foundation. The program provides educators with grants of up to $2,000 to cover costs related to creating new lessons on Indigenous history. The new grants fit into SMSC’s “Understand Native Minnesota” campaign, which strives to dispel myths and create accurate representations of Native people in Mni Sota Makoce. 

Why it’s a win: For the first time, teachers will be required to understand Indigenous cultural heritage and Native nations’ modern-day contributions to the state. The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) is approaching all eleven Native nations sharing geography with the state of Mni Sota Makoce to gather input on the topics elected Tribal leaders would like teachers to learn. This is an amazing recognition of nations’ sovereignty. 

By requiring teachers to build an understanding of nations’ modern-day contributions, the initiative is also moving the needle on Native narrative change. For too long, students in Mni Sota Makoce have learned about Indigenous people exclusively in the past tense. Teachers will be better equipped to educate the next generation on Indigenous sovereignty and governance. When more of the public understands key concepts related to Indigenous realities, we’ll see better outcomes for Native nations. And, teachers will also have a greater understanding of how to support Native students in the classroom, strengthening learning outcomes for young Indigenous leaders. 

Upper Sioux State Park Return

The Legislature’s 2023 decision to close Upper Sioux State Park and return the land to the Upper Sioux Community is another win for sovereignty at the state level. The 1,300-acre park at the confluence of the Yellow Medicine and Minnesota Rivers has an ugly history. The State of Minnesota operated the Upper Sioux Agency there during the mid-1800s, a government operation tasked with delivering treaty-guaranteed payments to the Dakota people. Yet, the Agency rarely delivered, and as a result, Dakota women, children, and elders starved to death on site. Broken treaties and starvation perpetuated by the failed payments later led to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

The park will close to the public in February 2024. After that, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will officially transfer the park back to the Upper Sioux Community.

Why it’s a win: The transfer of land back to Upper Sioux is a victory for the land back movement. It sets an example for future land transfers by the state and other governments. Oftentimes, when discussing the movement, we hear statements like, “Land back is great, but it’ll never happen!” The transfer is further proof that it is indeed happening.

The transfer also allows Upper Sioux to tell their own story about what happened. They’re able to determine how they want the land to be used. According to the Star Tribune, “Kevin Jensvold, chairman of the Upper Sioux Community, had asked lawmakers and the U.S. Department of the Interior for more than a decade to close the park. They argued the site where people starved should not be used for picnics.” The State of Minnesota’s decision honors Upper Sioux’s advocacy and sovereignty. 

Government to Government Relations  

In 2023, Governor Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan became the first administration to visit all 11 Native nations sharing geography with the state of Minnesota. Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan described the effort as a means for putting stated commitments into action. 

Why it’s a win: Visiting all eleven Native nations sets a precedent for future administrations. The move recognizes Native nations’ distinctness and unique priorities. It also shows respect for the fact that Native nations are sovereign, independent nations and deserve government-to-government consultation. Governor Walz previously signed legislation requiring state agencies to engage in Tribal consultation and to appoint Tribal-state liaisons. By visiting each nation sharing geography with Mni Sota Makoce, Governor Walz is sending a strong message to state agencies about the importance of follow-through and taking engagement seriously.

Dual-Language Highway Signage 

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and the Upper Sioux Community partnered on a new type of dual-language highway signage in 2023. The four highway signs mark the boundaries of the Upper Sioux Community. They read, “Peźihutazizi Kapi Makoće Land Where They Dig the Yellow Medicine.” The signs are unique because they feature the name Upper Sioux has chosen for themselves rather than their government-defined name. This is the first example of MnDOT highway signage honoring a nation’s chosen name. We’re also excited to say that Native Nation Rebuilder Levi Brown, MnDOT’s director of tribal affairs, played a role in the project. 

Why it’s a win: Dual-language highway signage affirms Native nations’ sovereignty and makes it clear that Native nations are still here. Using a Native nation’s preferred name shows respect for nations’ ability to choose how they want to be recognized. The signage draws attention to the fact that some nations are operating with names they did not choose for themselves. It’s a step in the right direction toward correcting the history of colonial name erasure.

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