Pawlenty apology fiasco illustrates how the system works

By Joe Fellegy

Editor’s Note: The following commentary by Joe Fellegy was written for the May 23, 2003, issue of Outdoor News.

It isn’t every day that a Minnesota governor sets up a respected DNR commissioner for public flogging over nothing. But that’s how it looked last week when Governor Tim Pawlenty’s staff willingly participated in a dishonorable tribal public relations powerplay aimed at discrediting and silencing DNR Commissioner Gene Merriam and, by implication, any state official who utters a syllable deemed “offensive” by tribal politicos. (There’s a difference between the tribal government-lobby-public relations machine, whose influence on government and media is limitless, and “the Indians.”)

By now you might know that Commissioner Merriam spoke at a PERM fundraiser at Wahkon on April 27. In a Q & A following his talk, and in a later chat with Outdoor News editor Rob Drieslein, he indicated that, yes, given how he views the separateness embodied in the playing out of treaty fishing at Mille Lacs (he used the words “misdirected” and “apartheid”) he would personally support a presidential order extinguishing the not-forever harvest privileges — something envisioned in the 1837 Treaty itself, and whose possibility was raised again by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1999 ruling in the Mille Lacs case.

On the afternoon of Monday, May 12, with interesting gambling proposals alive in the legislature, opportunistic word police in the tribal political establishment distributed a letter, signed by seven leaders and a council member from eight Indian bands, demanding Commissioner Merriam’s resignation. The letter accused Merriam of “unacceptable,” “inappropriate,” and “outrageous” conduct of a “horrific nature,” of making “offensive, hostile, and completely unacceptable” comments, and of “obvious bias against Indians.” The Governor’s people should have attacked or tossed this hysterical letter. Instead, the apologies.

Those who follow state-tribal issues see a familiar ploy here. Say anything critical or challenging about anybody or anything tribal (be it legal, economic, political, etc.), and a powerful force — tribal spokespersons, their lobbyists and public relations wags, and a willing cadre of media helpers — jumps into action. Anti-Indian racism is charged or implied in branding the offender. It’s the no-fail discrediting and silencing tool which obviously works perfectly in controlling Minnesota government, regardless of party, and most state media as well. There’s been no official leadership to confront this scurrilous tactic.

The Pawlenty-Merriam apologies probably broke a speed record for gubernatorial jumping when the “offended” party complains. According to Leslie Kupchella, Gov. Pawlenty’s communications chief, the apologies were “simply the right thing to do.” So simply, and so quickly, that she didn’t know who wrote and delivered the hyperbolic tribal letter.

The quick and unreasoned apologies forestalled chances for a more carefully targeted response to the letter, or even a defense of the Commissioner, if such unwarranted charges even merited a high-level response.

Related points

• Tribal leaders signing the sack-Merriam letter did not include those from Red Lake, White Earth, and Fond du Lac bands, which comprise the strong majority of Minnesota Chippewa. Seven of the eight signees, from outside the 1837 treaty rights area, have no connections with tribal fishing at Mille Lacs.

• The tribal leash on state government is so tight that as of Sunday no high official had publicly criticized the letter’s false allegations.

• Tribal operatives discover racism everywhere, even in rational discussions about government policy and law. Too often, good people are defamed and smeared, with ample help from media and silent public officials.

• The Governor’s apology stated Merriam’s “unfortunate” remarks didn’t reflect his administration’s “policy.” But Pawlenty has yet to articulate an Indian policy. Given his administration’s kneejerk, groveling response to the hysterical tribal complaints about Merriam, one now wonders what guides state government in dealing with tribes when state interests are on the line.

Fretting about “apartheid”

The Commissioner’s April 27 remarks were moderate and deferential, explaining Mille Lacs fisheries management in the context of court opinions and court-approved processes. He spoke positively about Curt Kalk, Mille Lacs Band DNR Commissioner. Had the tribal letter signers and Pawlenty apologizers been present, they’d have been hard pressed to find anything “unfortunate” in Commissioner Merriam’s temperate remarks.

And then there’s apartheid. Tribal operatives found bait. Gubernatorial apologizers stupidly swallowed it. And media commentators neglect bigger issues while trifling over the word. One definition refers to South Africa’s old forced racial divides. But the word’s general meaning applies to racial segregation and separatist policies. This is benign, common usage of a morally neutral word.

In The Disuniting of America, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., famed historian, Democrat, and JFK biographer, uses “apartheid” in discussing the current obsession with separate ethnic and racial group identities at the expense of a common national identity. Anthropologist James Clifton has described how U. S. Indian policy and politics have perpetuated a kind of political separatism distinguishable from South African apartheid but still a “similar system” with race-based characteristics. Jean-Jacques Simard, sociology professor and native studies expert at Laval University in Quebec, opined in a 1990 essay that “Indian status consecrates a North American version of apartheid, a legally defined racial apartness that is popularly defended as marvelously benevolent.” These guys aren’t intellectual lightweights!

One could easily argue that the early-1990s treaty “settlement” efforts in the Minnesota legislature to partition the Mille Lacs fishing grounds into race-based “zones” — a move supported by tribal leaders, Twin Cities editors, high state officials, and scores of legislators — reeked of separatism and apartheid. So does the litany of stark differences in fishing limits, methods, and seasons, which breed racial antagonisms.

Even if politically correct nit-pickers must fuss over Commissioner Merriam’s innocent usage, should it have brought historic high-level apologies befitting official crime or malfeasance? No! That was a sad mistake!