A Lynching in Effigy

Donna Ennis

Settler Colonialism has best been defined as more of an imposed structure than a historical event. This structure is characterized by relationships of domination and subjugation that has become woven throughout the fabric of society, and even becomes disguised as paternalistic benevolence. The objective of settler colonialism is always the acquisition of indigenous territories and resources, which mean eliminating or assimilating Native people. This was attempted in overt ways in the past including boarding schools and military domination but also in more subtle ways currently; for example, through national policies of assimilation, Reagan’s war on drugs, anti-Indian sentiment, micro-aggressions and blatant racism in our communities.

Currently there is tension between the City of Duluth and the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa after a federal ruling by the United States District Court that the band doesn’t have to pay roughly $10 million that the City of Duluth claimed in back payments. The Star Tribune recounted the history of the tension in a profile of band chairwoman, Karen Diver. It began in 1984 when a revenue-sharing agreement established the first urban tribal casino in the country. In 1994, a revised agreement guaranteed Duluth 19 percent of gross revenues from the casino, which had earned the tribe close to $200 million. Since then, the city and the band have disagreed about the contributions the other has made. The band says it didn’t need the city’s support to operate the casino. The city says it provides the casino services it needs. In 2009, the tribe stopped paying the city its cut, which was then about $6 million a year and $75 million since 1994. The city sued and while federal court took up the dispute, the band took the question to the National Indian Gaming Commission. The commission ruled that the revenue-sharing agreement between the band and the city of Duluth violated the federal law, which requires that Indian tribes retain “sole proprietary interest” of their casinos. Both the tribe and the city have appealed/sued over different aspects of earlier decisions by various courts. Duluth City Attorney, Gunnar Johnson, says the dispute stems from the city’s intent and actions to try and get a fair benefit for getting into a business arrangement with the band. In light of this most recent decision, Gunnar stated that the city is still studying the decision and considering its options. Also in contention is whether the adjacent property to the casino can be put into trust for the Fond du Lac Band. The city is trying to keep this property from becoming part of the reservation and has asserted that the band needs approval from the city. U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson ruled recently that the city does not have to approve the move to place the land in trust. I have listed here some of the rhetoric from city officials that has been posted in the media.

Johnson said “If the hotel becomes part of the reservation, the city loses out on money and the ability to control public nuisances on the site.” The implication here is that our people are nuisances and only tolerated.

“Their customers come from the Duluth metropolitan area and the tourists that they bring in and the city of Duluth spends about 8 million dollars a year in tourism promotion to bring tourists to Duluth. That is a huge benefit to the band and there is no contribution made in recognition by that investment by Duluth.”

Johnson noted the “The band doesn’t pay property taxes, but reaps the benefits of city services like law enforcement, fire protection and tourism promotion.” Diver offered a fee – for – service of $58,000 a year. “We understand we’re using [City] services. We’re willing to pay our fair share.”

“There’s an untold number of benefits the band gets from having the casino in downtown Duluth,” Johnson said, “but the city gets nothing from it.” This is an unbelievable statement as the casino is the biggest employer in the city.

“They didn’t give the judge a lot of option,” Johnson said. “The Court of Appeals was obviously pushing for a different result, and they got that in today’s decision.”

Johnson, again lamenting the NIGC ruling that he contends was a political decision, “The ruling has grave consequences for Duluth taxpayers.”

“This was important to the city because we still have debt from when we did have that revenue stream from the band,” he said. “If the city doesn’t recover this $13.5 million, it’ll be on the taxpayers not only to pay for all the street repairs that were paid for previously, but also to pay back the debt that was taken out in reliance upon the revenue stream from the casino.” Why is the burden not on city officials who were at the table with the Band and walked away with nothing every time because of their greed?

All of this rhetoric is designed to incite and inflame the community. This paternalistic benevolence is offered and contracts are negotiated and things move along smoothly until the domination and subjugation tactics are questioned and then the great, white father’s fist comes down. Any tribal effort to build some economic self-sufficiency is suppressed. As soon as we don’t appear grateful for the benevolence the propaganda begins and Natives are portrayed as unfit to govern them self and as greedy savages. The people in the community feed into this mentality and come to accept that the culture and doctrines of the colonizer is intrinsically more worthy or superior. It is a lynching in effigy and the media serves as a propaganda machine for the communities. The end result is vicious slurs and violent harassment of Native people.

Donna Ennis is the Community Center Manager for Fond du Lac Reservation where she is also a respected tribal elder. She is working on her Master’s degree in Tribal Administration and Governance at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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