The resorts that ring Lake Mille Lacs are the economic backbone of the central Minnesota county that shares the sprawling body of water’s name. These hardworking business owners should know that their County Board’s self-inflicted feud with a local American Indian community will make it more difficult for resort owners to compete with other vacation destinations.
This is the age of the socially conscious consumer. There’s a reason national companies tout sustainably sourced products or cancel ads on websites with controversial content. The decision to buy is driven not only by getting a good deal, but doing good as well, especially among younger generations.
That’s an important reality as Gov. Mark Dayton gives Mille Lacs County leaders a second chance to resolve an ugly, unnecessary dispute with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe over a law enforcement cooperative agreement. The agreement, which had been in place for 25 years until the county abruptly terminated it in 2016, augmented the small county’s law enforcement ranks with tribal officers.
County officials maintain that they ended the agreement over concerns about tribal police procedures, among other things. They are fooling no one. This decision came after a federal agency issued a ruling siding with the tribe over broader reservation boundaries. Jettisoning the law enforcement agreement is a way to thwart further recognition of these boundaries in criminal justice proceedings.
The move, which replaces 32 tribal officers with six new county officers, regrettably puts politics over public safety. It’s also another sorry episode in the county’s long history of disgraceful relations with American Indians. It drew upon scant county public resources in the 1990s to wage a legal fight against the Mille Lacs Band’s treaty rights. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the county in 1999.
It ought to be clear to the county’s $48-million-a-year tourism industry that this latest dispute undermines the area’s modern, family-friendly vacation reputation. If these business owners aren’t already pushing officials to resolve this as soon as possible, they should be.
The County Board’s actions may reflect the antiquated notions of some area residents. But the people who pay to fish and frolic in Lake Mille Lacs come from elsewhere. When the area is already struggling due to the limited walleye catch, it can’t afford to lose customers for other reasons.
The County Board’s actions are tarnishing the area’s brand. Customers researching vacation options will likely see news coverage of the county’s decision. Consumers may well choose to take their dollars to locations whose elected officials have values better reflecting their own. The board’s actions also leave the region vulnerable to social media activism, which advocates for other causes have employed with fearsome might.
A mediation process between the county and the band earlier this year failed to yield a solution, which is why Dayton requested that both sides try again. The county should realize that it is in its best interest to reinstate the previous cooperative agreement and start repairing its reputation.