I have been an advocate for tribal issues for over two decades. I have had the privilege of serving as the president of my tribe, the Prairie Island Indian Community, and have also worked on the national level serving as an officer with the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Gaming Association. As my fellow tribal leaders will tell you, one of the most important responsibilities that a tribal leader has in working with the Congress of the United States is, sadly, educating them about tribal sovereignty, the role of tribal governments and the numerous issues that tribal leaders and tribal members face on a daily basis.
This was not the case with Norm Coleman.
When Sen. Coleman took office in January of 2003, he walked in the door with an understanding of, and support for, tribal issues and his support for tribal issues during his term as a senator from Minnesota has been unwavering. The Prairie Island Indian Community has worked closely with him on a number of issues and he has always come through for our community.
Our reservation is located 600 yards from a nuclear power plant. The proximity to the power plant and the nuclear waste poses a potential threat to our community. Homeland security is a great concern to us, as it is for numerous tribes across the country. Yet, we faced years of frustration in not being able to obtain federal assistance for dealing with this threat because tribes were forced to go through their states in order to receive any assistance. As a member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Coleman worked closely with committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Ranking Member Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) so that for the first time tribal governments can receive homeland security grants directly from the federal government. Prairie Island was recently one of the first tribes to receive a homeland security grant.
Sen. Norm Coleman’s door has always been open to his tribal constituents. He understands tribes and tribal sovereignty.
Sen. Coleman was also instrumental in righting a decades-old injustice that had been inflicted on Prairie Island by the Army Corps of Engineers. During the 1930s the Corps, without the permission of the tribe, flooded much of our reservation. Burial mounds, sacred sites, traditional grasslands and medicine sites were now tragically under water. For years, Prairie Island pleaded with Congress to help them regain ownership of the land and to place it in trust for Prairie Island so that the land that is so meaningful to our people could be returned to the Community. We finally found a friend and advocate in Sen. Coleman, who, working hand in hand with our congressman, John Kline (R-2nd), pushed through the legislation that restored the land to the tribe and placed it into trust.
When Sen. Coleman was elected in 2000 he stated in a national meeting with tribal leaders that “We must reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act!” Sen. Coleman is keenly aware of the horrible disparity in Indian health care services. He knows that tribal members are 2.6 times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes; suicide for Indians is 2.5 times higher than the national average; 13 percent of Indian deaths occur in those younger than 25, a rate three times higher than the average U.S. population; and life expectancy for Indians is six years less than the rest of the U.S. population.
Sen. Coleman worked hard to convince his colleagues that reauthorization of the IHCIA was long overdue, and this past February the act was voted out of the Senate by a vote of 83 – 10.
The grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian on Sept. 21, 2004, was a proud day for American Indians and Alaska Natives. Tribes from across the nation marched down the Mall to celebrate the museum that recognized the past and future of the First Americans. Sen. Coleman once again demonstrated his respect for the Minnesota tribes by being one of the few congressional offices to invite the tribal leaders and members to his office for a reception in their honor.
Sen. Coleman’s door has always been open to his tribal constituents. He understands tribes and tribal sovereignty. He is not afraid to work with them on what are often complicated and difficult issues and, most importantly, he follows through on his promises with action. Minnesota tribes know all too well that promises made in Washington are not always kept. Let’s re-elect someone we can count on to work for us and who has a track record of keeping his promises to Minnesota tribes.
Audrey Bennett served as president of the Prairie Island Indian Community for 10 years and as the tribe’s director of government affairs for 10 years. She has also served as president of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, vice chairman of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association, president of the National Inter-Tribal Public Relations Task Force, treasurer of the National Indian Gaming Association and delegate to the National Congress of American Indians.