Where should we go from here?

My 12/28 column in the Mille Lacs Messenger:

This week marks the end of our “Youth in Crisis” series on crime and social problems among young people of the area, specifically Mille Lacs Band members.
We’ll continue to cover issues of drug and alcohol abuse, violence and crime on and off the reservation, but not on a weekly basis as we’ve been doing since November 9.
We’re wrapping up the series with an interview of Mille Lacs Band District 1 Representative Sandra Blake (page 1), a story on Native gangs by Diane Gibas (page 3), and a column by Rob Passons (along with this column).
The relevant questions now are “What have we learned?” and “What’s next?” Here are a few thoughts:
The problems are real. Numbers show that crime, violence and substance abuse are high in the county, and that the Vineland area is hardest hit. Although many explanations can be offered for different crime rates among Indians and non-Indians, the bottom line can’t be argued: Far more Indian youth are dying from these problems than non-Indians.
The problems affect us all. We all pay higher costs than we should for out-of-home placements and law enforcement, including cops on the beat, prosecutors, judges, court administrators, social services workers, jailers and probation officers. As crime spills over from the reservation to the resort community, as it has recently, the region’s tourism economy is threatened. Money aside, we all mourn the loss of young people to jail, addiction, and death, regardless of color.
The causes are deep-seated. We’ve read about the intractable problems in Indian communities, from alcoholism to domestic violence to gangs, and we’ve considered the origin of those problems in “historical trauma” suffered by Indian communities since the arrival of Europeans. Non-Indians need to take that explanation seriously. The cruel treatment of Indian people is not something confined to the distant past. Racism is alive and well, and many of our neighbors have experienced it first hand.
The solutions won’t come easy. Problems that have been with us for a hundred years will not be solved overnight, and they likely won’t be solved by the Band alone. Considering the fact that some problems have grown worse during the casino era, it appears that money is not the answer.
Here are three places to start:
•    First, since the perception persists among Band members, including government officials, that Indians are treated differently by cops, prosecutors and courts, we need to find out if that’s true. My proposal: Find a graduate student in criminal justice from the U of M or St. Cloud to conduct Master’s or Doctoral research on the topic, attempting to answer these questions: Are Band members charged higher bail on average than non-Indians? Are Indians charged with more serious offenses than non-Indians? Are Indians given longer sentences and/or greater fines than non-Indians? Until we get the facts, all we have are accusations by the Band and denials by the County.
•    Second, whether there is unequal treatment or not, the County and Band need to do all they can to ensure that Indian people are treated properly by the county. A simple first step: Get together to hire an Indian advocate to work with Mille Lacs County’s social services department, county attorney’s office, sheriff’s office, and probation to ensure that Indian citizens are treated with fairness and respect. I’m sure there are grants available to pay for the position.
•    Finally, and most importantly, the Band and its neighbors need to sit down together with a neutral mediator at a neutral site, lay their cards on the table, and find ways to solve problems that affect us all. Simply put, we need to become friends, and the only way to do that is to start talking and listening to each other. Until that happens, trust will be hard to come by, and so will solutions.

Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.


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