By Joe Morey
Fourteen LCO Elders traveled to the Mille Lacs Reservation as guests of their chairwoman, Melanie Benjamin, to learn about how their tribal government is set up. The group has been meeting for several years at Lac Courte Oreilles as a Tribal Constitution Revision Committee.
Mona Ingerson as a representative of the LCO Elders Advisory Council comes into LCO Tribal Governing Board (TGB) weekly meetings to report on the happenings of the elders in the community. She told the TGB the visit was a success.
“We thought we’d just be at a table and have dinner but Melanie and her staff were all there and they had a presentation on how they became a three-branch government,” Ingerson explained. She said Benjamin’s Cabinet Members were there.
Ingerson noted, “There government isn’t like the U.S. Government though, it’s three branches but based on our culture.
The dinner was the welcoming of the Elders to Mille Lacs. On day 2, tribal officials gave a tour of their museum and their trading post.
“Then we went to their legislative session. There meeting was on Zoom so their tribal members could watch, but they could only sign in by using their member number, so it’s private to their tribal membership,” Ingerson said. “They also post all their meeting minutes.”
She also explained that all their ordinances and government information is posted and you can search a term to find anything.
Ingerson also told the TGB they deal with hardship cases at their meetings. She said they put out the information on the case, but they don’t put out names, it’s by case number.
“One thing we really took notice to is that they have a lot of checks and balances between their three branches of government,” Ingerson noted. “We were able to visit their judicial branch. They are a Public Law 280 tribe. There is a public defender, but their offices are located outside of the Legal Department.”
Ingerson added the Mille Lacs tribal leadership was very gracious and they’d love to go back.
“We have so many more questions,” she concluded.
The following is an article by Vivian LaMoore, editor for the Mille Lacs tribal news, about the LCO Elders visit to their tribe:
Members of a delegation from Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) tribe in Wisconsin spent two days, September 19 and 20, on the Mille Lacs Reservation observing the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe division of powers form of government. LCO government currently operates under the single council form of government called the Reservation Business Committee (RBC) that was assigned to them by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) as a result of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Members of the LCO Constitution Reform Committee are currently researching the possibility of revising their constitution to closely resemble the three-branch form of government followed by the Mille Lacs Band.
The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe had operated under the RBC style of government as well up until the 1980s, when Band Elders and leaders determined that a three-branch division of powers form of government would be a more effective and responsible way to run the Reservation. The three-branch governing system of the Mille Lacs Band includes the Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch, and the Judicial Branch.
Rick St. Germaine, former Commissioner for the Band, is a member of the LCO Tribal Committee on Constitution Revision that has been organized by their Band the past year to explore the feasibility of changing their tribal constitution from an RBC model to a three-branch form of government, separation of powers model, to create a “balance of responsibilities,” he said. “Everyone knows the Mille Lacs Band has been a leader in so many ways, like government initiatives, self-determination, Ceremonial Drum, leadership, Ojibwemowin, and more,” St. Germaine said.
LCO has researched the three-branch system of government at Navajo Nation, Cherokee, Choctaw, Ho-Chunk, and Osage, St. Germaine said. “Then we thought to contact Melanie Benjamin and Sheldon Boyd about the possibility of visiting MLB and having a conversation about their experiences with [the three branch government].” Chief Executive Benjamin and Speaker Boyd invited the LCO committee for a visit and “pledged to educate us about their years of experiences.”
The LCO delegation was very grateful for the “generous hospitality” and opportunity to learn, St. Germaine said. On Tuesday, September 19, members from the Executive Branch provided a PowerPoint presentation with handouts and responded to questions from the LCO delegation. On Wednesday, September 20, LCO delegates observed a Band Assembly meeting. Members of Band Assembly provided introductions and described what was happening during the meeting. Following the meeting, members of Band Assembly and staff from the Legislative Branch provided explanations of codes, bills, acts, legislation, procedures, functions of appropriations, commissioners’ roles, and a general overview of how things work to achieve the best for Band members “despite possible vetoes and differences,” St. Germaine said.
“Listening to people talk about what has been accomplished here has shown me that our governments continue to be a work in progress,” Speaker Sheldon Boyd said. “Our LCO friends are seeking the same thing we are.”
LCO delegates also had the opportunity to meet with Judge Richard Osburn, who “explained so much for us,” St. Germaine said. Having visited with all three branches of government at Mille Lacs — Executive, Legislative, and Judicial — the LCO delegates will be sharing their observations with their tribe.
“The Band cannot understand how much this is going to help us,” St. Germaine continued. “We are deeply indebted to the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, our sister Band.”
St. Germaine explained LCO has a great connection to Mille Lacs. “We have the date when Mille Lacs showed up in 1878 and brought the sacred Ceremonial Drum over to us. We have honored that ever since. Our connection is a real close one. We hold that in high esteem.
“We come back and forth and some of your folks come and visit us. We honor your bundles whenever you send them over to us and we share those. And now here you are sharing your system of government with us. We operate under a constitution that was created by the BIA for us in the 1930s. Basically, we are still under that system of government that centralizes government to a small group of people. We really don’t have much of an understanding of how to create the branches of government and honor the traditions and culture the way it is done here.
“To be able to come over here to our sister Band and be welcomed by you and have this depth of sharing with us is really an honor. We are bringing this back. Our plan is to work with our governing board — our council — to offer a constitution revision and put it before the membership and let the membership decide. We are taking all of the nuggets that you have shared with us. We are all going to go back with big smiles and will share the information with our Band,” St. Germaine said.
Members of the LCO delegates include: Rick St. Germaine, Vera Homesky, Leslie Ramszck, Matt Belille, Sheryl Fink, Clara Jalowitz, Dorothy Sharon, Faith Smith, Caryl Pfaff, Mona Ingerson, Marie Kuykendall, Bill Morrow, and Pat Alexander.
Photo credit to Vivian LaMoore