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Star Tribune article about our press release.

Mendota Dakota tribal members to petition for federal recognition as sovereign nation: Star Tribune

The community says sovereign status would bring benefits, respect. 

Tommy Tomahawk, tribal relations, and Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Tribal Community chairperson Sharon Lennartson sat in the shade in front of a sweat lodge for a portrait.
Tommy Tomahawk, tribal relations, and Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Tribal Community chairperson Sharon Lennartson sat in the shade in front of a sweat lodge for a portrait. Photo: SHARI L. GROSS • STAR TRIBUNE

Members of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Tribal Community plan to apply for recognition by the federal government as a sovereign nation, a designation that could give them a seat on the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and possibly help them obtain land.

The move also would earn the Mendota Dakota community respect from other tribes, said tribal chairwoman Sharon Lennartson.

“We are still here and we always will be,” said Lennartson, also known as Good Thunder Woman. “We will fight for our rights.”

The tribe, which formed a nonprofit about 25 years ago and has 125 members, intends to submit a petition for recognition this summer. They consider the Mendota area, near the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, as their homeland.

Tribal officials said they feel hopeful about their chances because of President Joe Biden’s statements about reaffirming relationships with tribal groups.

A petition filed 25 years ago by the Mendota Dakota community is still in federal hands, said Greg Strandmark, the community’s tribal council historian. He said obtaining federal status can take generations, but the community already believes it is sovereign and has the right to self-govern.

A tribe or nation must prove seven things to be recognized, Strandmark said, including documenting that 50% of tribal members lived within a geographical area — in this case near present-day Mendota — at multiple points in history, and that the group has had political authority over time.

Obtaining recognition is “complicated, very burdensome and a real uphill battle,” said Iyekiyapiwin Darlene St. Clair, an American Indian studies professor at St. Cloud State University and member of the Lower Sioux Indian Community.

Nevertheless, dozens of tribes are seeking or have sought federal recognition. Several elsewhere in the United States have gained sovereign status recently, so it’s possible, she said.

“They’ve been engaged in this process for a long time,” St. Clair said of the Mendota Dakota community. “I really do have a lot of compassion for the tribes out there trying to seek federal recognition.”

St. Clair said there are “legitimate reasons” a tribe might not have federal recognition. It may not have gone through the treaty process with the U.S. government long ago, or it might have been overlooked because it was a small group.

Benefits of recognition may include access to loans and federal programs. And a tribe can’t start a gaming operation without federal recognition, she said.

But St. Clair said she doesn’t believe the Mendota Dakota group is seeking federal recognition for that reason.

“I do think for the people at Mendota, they want to be seen as Dakota people, they want to be seen as a Native nation. I think that’s their first priority,” St. Clair said.

Tribes that are already recognized don’t want federal recognition to be “to be handed out willy-nilly.” They want the process to be fair and thorough, she said.

Strandmark said some Mendota Dakota community members tried to join the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) in Prior Lake decades ago, but leaders laughed at them and suggested they find other communities.

An SMSC spokeswoman said they weren’t aware of any such interaction. In a statement, SMSC officials said the history of the Dakota in Minnesota is “complex and very well documented.”

Three Mdewakanton tribal governments — Prairie Island, Lower Sioux and Shakopee — are recognized mostly because Congress provided money in the 1880s to buy land for their communities. But land wasn’t purchased at Mendota, the statement said.

“Based upon our understanding of the tribal recognition process, there is no factual basis for a tribe to secure recognized government status at Mendota,” the statement said.

Strandmark said the Mendota Dakota community didn’t receive land from the U.S. government because it was deemed too expensive and too close to the Twin Cities. Since they lack land, they haven’t gotten federal recognition, he said. But he believes they have a good shot at recognition this time around.

“Ours is almost a slam dunk case,” he said.

Story by Erin Adler for the Star Tribune • 612-673-1781