Mayor-Elect Emily Larson, who won by a landslide on November 3, campaigned heavily on the idea of “building on our momentum”—and with good reason. Outgoing Mayor Don Ness is one of the most popular mayors in Duluth history, leaving office with an 89 percent approval rating, according to this year’s National Citizen Survey. Anyone hoping to succeed Ness needed to capture a significant portion of his supporters and convince them she could build on the policies and popularity of his administration.
What remains to be seen is whether and how this applies to the City’s relationship with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa—a relationship that was sorely tested over a 19 percent revenue-sharing agreement for Fond-du-Luth Casino in Downtown Duluth.
Under the agreement, the Band was paying the City about $6 million a year in “rent,” even though the Band owns the building and the business. The Band determined that these payments violated federal Indian gaming law and, in 2009, they stopped paying.
The City sued and lost, appealed and lost again, then lost a third appeal, with City Attorney Gunnar Johnson promising to review the City’s options and not rule out even more appeals. Meanwhile, the City was also suing the Band over its acquisition of the adjacent Carter Hotel, a suit the City also lost.
Tall fences may make good neighbors, but protracted litigation does not. In Indian Country Today, Fond du Lac elder and Community Center Manager Donna Ennis called the whole affair “a lynching in effigy”:
Settler Colonialism...is characterized by relationships of domination and subjugation that has become woven throughout the fabric of society, and even becomes disguised as paternalistic benevolence. The objective of settler colonialism is always the acquisition of indigenous territories and resources, which mean eliminating or assimilating Native people.
All of this rhetoric [over the casino and hotel] is designed to incite and inflame the community. This paternalistic benevolence is offered and contracts are negotiated and things move along smoothly until the domination and subjugation tactics are questioned and then the great, white father’s fist comes down. Any tribal effort to build some economic self-sufficiency is suppressed. As soon as we don’t appear grateful for the benevolence, the propaganda begins and Natives are portrayed...as greedy savages.
In an October 13 debate with her opponent, Chuck Horton (who had taken a strong stance against further litigation), Larson talked about “moving forward” and “building relationships.” She criticized Horton for “talking about the past” and said “we should look to the future”—but Larson named nothing specific that she would do to repair the relationship with Fond du Lac.
In a later interview via email, Larson wrote:
Certainly a change in leadership on the part of Fond du Lac creates an unexpected twist [former Fond du Lac Chair Karen Diver recently accepted a position in Washington DC], but my commitment to resolve this, and repair our relationship, remains. I am currently working with our legal team, and allies from outside of City Hall, to ensure I am walking in with a current and full understanding of our situation and options. In addition to the information I have available to me as a Councilor, I am finding that resources and news coverage from native news outlets are really valuable to increase my understanding. Tribal law experts within our area are bringing critical expertise as well.
While these actions are certainly admirable, when asked again if she would commit to ending the litigation, Larson did not respond further. There are many things about the Ness administration worth emulating—but continuing to sue Fond du Lac is not one of them.