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Promoting Tribal & Community Cooperation: Building a strong foundation for partnership



Summary of research findings on Indigenous - municipal cooperation in the United States and CAnada
ccording to information
from the 2015 American
Community Survey of
the U.S. Census Bureau
and Statistics Canada, which is the
equivalent of the U.S. Census Bureau,
less than 2 percent and 4 percent of the
overall population identify themselves
as American Indian or Aboriginal,
respectively. Yet both groups are among
the fastest growing population segments
in the United States and Canada.
There are more than 567 federally
recognized American Indian and Alaska
Native tribes in the United States and
more than 600 First Nation, Inuit, and
Metis communities in Canada. They are
increasingly improving their governance
capacity and ability to exercise their
powers of self-governance.
In Canada, for instance, indigenous
communities have signed self-govern-
ment agreements and modern treaties
that provide them with a wide range of
powers, and they have exercised those
powers by developing sophisticated bu-
reaucracies, new governance structures,
and political bodies.1
Indigenous nations are, according to
a 2009 National Congress of American
Indians report, “discovering ways to set
aside jurisdictional rivalry in favor of
cooperative government-to-government
Local governments are beginning to
realize that they can benefit significantly
from entering cooperative government-
to-government partnerships with
indigenous governments. Since many
of the problems and issues facing local
communities are regional—public safety,
economic development, transporta-
tion, and environmental and natural
resource protection—and do not seem
to adhere neatly to existing geo-political
boundaries, cooperative relationships
are becoming crucial for solving these
multijurisdictional challenges.
Similarly, as first and second order
devolution—which is the transfer of
federal or state responsibility onto the
state or local level, respectfully—impose
increased financial burdens on tribes
and local governments, the ability to
partner may allow both entities to at-
tract more funding from state, provin-
cial, and federal levels of government.
Since the U.S. and Canada’s indig-
enous communities, for instance, have
a direct nation to-nation-relationship
with the federal government, they are
in a better position to leverage federal
resources, while local governments are
better able to leverage resources from
their provincial government. There
may also be the possibility to leverage
partnerships collectively at both levels.
While there is evidence of in-
creasing contact between local and
Building a strong
foundation for
By Christopher Alcantara,
Mitchell Berg, and Jennifer Nelles
Tribal & Community
COOPERATION online and mobile accessible OCTOBER 2017 | PUB LIC MANAGEMENT 11
indigenous governments, not all
partnerships are emerging equally or
in the same forms within and across
Canada and the U.S. The diversity of
form and outcomes in these countries
provides some useful insights for local
and indigenous governments interested
in partnering on a range of economic,
political, and social issues.
A look at how two communities
have successfully developed coop-
erative partnerships with indigenous
nations helps illustrate the strategies
and approaches necessary for produc-
tive relationships.
Coming Together
White Earth Nation/Mahnomen
County/Mahnomen City. The city of
Mahnomen and Mahnomen County,
located in Northwest Minnesota, are
unique in that both the city and county
reside entirely within the boundary of
the White Earth Indian Reservation, the
largest of 11 Indian nations within the
state of Minnesota.
In 2016, the tribal council and county
board began hosting joint tribal council
and county board workshops to discuss ar-
eas of mutual interest and alignment. As a
result of these conversations, both entities
discussed the need to build a joint public
safety facility that could create efficiencies
for both the county and the tribe.
In 2017, the city, county, and tribe
created an informal public safety
task force that developed a formal
memorandum of understanding
(MOU) to conduct a feasibility study
to build a new Joint Public Safety and
Law Enforcement Center. To ensure
the success of the feasibility study,
the tribe and county entered into a
separate agreement with the Regional
Development Commission (RDC) to
facilitate discussions between consul-
tant, county, and tribe.
While the feasibility study is still
underway, RDC’s executive director
expressed great optimism about the tribe
and the county’s commitment, as well as
continued engagement with the process
after the study is complete.
Sault Ste Marie/Garden River/
Batchewana. The city of Sault Ste
Marie, Ontario, Canada, has several
agreements with the two First Nations—
Garden River and Batchewana—that
border it. The city has three agree-
ments with Garden River and five with
Batchewana, the earliest of which was
completed in 1990.
All but one of the current agree-
ments pertain to service arrangements
wherein the First Nations contract to
obtain city services for such things as
water provision, fire protection, and road
maintenance to the reservations.
These relationships are notable for
their durability. They’ve been going
strong for almost 30 years and one
agreement has survived four rounds of
updates. They also are resilient, having
survived several rounds of political turn-
over on all sides, likely due to the fact
that they provide much needed benefits
to both parties in the form of municipal
services and service fees.
While service agreements are gener-
ally not as difficult to negotiate as some
other types, including the MOU refer-
enced above, the number and durability
of these agreements count as a success-
ful case of indigenous-local government
cooperation in Canada.
Building Relationships
Looking at these two case studies, as
well as other agreements between local
communities and indigenous nations,
also sheds light on what it takes to build
a successful partnership. Here are some
foundational principles:
Identifying issues of common
interest is important before coming
to a solution. Too often, people want to
immediately jump to a solution before
sitting down at the table to discuss the
problem. Parties need to come to an
understanding about the nature of the
problem and how (best) to solve it and
be willing to make the sacrifices neces-
sary to make that happen.
This is a basic requirement for any
discussion of partnership and agreement
to take place. It’s also worth noting that
just because there’s an area of common
concern doesn’t mean that an agree-
ment will result. Parties need to see the
problem and be willing to solve it or the
opportunity and be willing to grasp it.
Leadership within the ranks is
essential to creating partnerships.
Having willing stakeholders who have a
vested interest in wanting to come to the
table and work together is another key
attribute towards creating an environ-
ment for cooperation.
In 2007, the White Earth Nation
was engaged in a contentious lawsuit
with Mahnomen County over a prop-
erty tax dispute and land that the tribe
had purchased to build a casino. Over
time, though, as newly elected officials
assumed both county and tribal elected
roles, there was a greater willingness and
acceptance by the county and tribe to
want to work together.
Resources matter. Almost every
partnership involves the transfer of some
type of resources. In even the simplest
cases (e.g., a service contract), the
contracting community needs to be able
to pay for the service.
If those means aren’t present, an
agreement won’t go anywhere. The
contracting entity may also sacrifice a
degree of autonomy on how that service
is applied. That said, if parties want to
build trust and communication to lay the
foundation for future agreements, one
type of resource that doesn’t necessarily
involve hard resources (e.g., cash) is a
relationship-building agreement.
These agreements can be as simple
as a commitment to regularly share in-
Building and cultivating social net-
works and ties can help in promot-
ing cooperation.
Developing a method of establish-
ing trust and respect is critical to
overcoming barriers to cooperation.
Tribal & Community
formation or to consult the
other party on decisions
with collective impact. The
commitments can be ex-
tremely powerful and can
create a solid foundation
for future partnerships.
Here are additional
takeaways in building
relationships and achiev-
ing agreement:
If the desire to cooper-
ate is lacking, then
there is a need to build
up community capital
between the tribal and
local governments and
groups. The more that
residents and policymakers
see themselves as part of a
group that shares something—a similar
problem, an environment, a market,
an identity—the more they are likely to
come to the table and work together.
In other words, community capital
can be built. It’s difficult to do when
there are difficult histories or other
cultural barriers, but it’s possible. This
is partly about being strategic in terms
of which partnerships to pursue and at
what point in the relationship.
History isn’t everything. Difficult or
ambivalent histories can make coopera-
tion more difficult but not impossible
to achieve. It’s possible to overcome
distrust, but it takes dedication and a
strong potential for mutual benefit.
If there is a lack of trust or respect,
perhaps initiating dialogue at the staff
level between the tribal and local govern-
mental level would be productive. Either
way, if the initial discussion is with
appointed, elected, or a combination of
both elected and appointed officials, Dr.
James Collard, University of Oklahoma,
suggests in his dissertation “Tribal-Mu-
nicipal Cooperation in Oklahoma,” that
the first step before meeting is to learn
as much as possible about the history,
customs, and language of the other side.
Then, at the meet-
ing, the first step is to
begin with an informal
exchange of personal
information on non-issue-
related topics before
participants share their
personal perspectives on
which issues need to be
discussed. Dr. Collard’s
contribution to tribal
and municipal coopera-
tion is important as his
research led him to find
that trust and respect are
paramount to overcoming
any obstacles and barriers
to intergovernmental
If there are still some
trust and respect issues
after the initial stakeholders meet-
ing, consider taking an incremental
approach to building the relationship.
Record those issues of mutual interest
into an MOU. Relationship agreements
are a good starting point in building a
successful relationship and a potentially
more intense partnership down the road.
Once the framework of an agreement
seems possible, begin by drafting an
agreement concerning those areas for
which there is mutual concurrence. Over
time, the agreement can incrementally
be amended or expanded, as the trust is
built up between the two parties.
This process is visible with both
of the communities profiled earlier.
For example, in their law enforcement
agreement, the city of Mahnomen and
the White Earth Nation entered into
a jurisdictional agreement to provide
4,160 hours of law enforcement coverage
within the city in 2013.
In 2016, the agreement was
expanded to provide 8,320 hours of
coverage and in 2017, the city expand-
ed discussion with the tribe to add a
contracted community service officer
to the agreement.
The success of the initial round of
agreements between Sault Ste Marie and
Garden River and Batchewana First Na-
tions also laid an important foundation
for subsequent agreements.
If there are additional concerns about
trust and respect either at the initial
stakeholder meeting or after, another
suggestion is to appoint a facilitator
who has a positive relationship with
both communities to guide the process
required to reach agreement.
In the example of Mahnomen County
and the White Earth Nation, although
there was a deep desire to engage each
party in a truthful and meaningful way
toward engagement, there was a concern
that such certain elements of the past
as historical racism might surface that
could stop the process.
Therefore, it was decided that since
both entities had built up trust and
respect with the regional development
corporation, it was best to ask the execu-
tive director to help facilitate the process
of completing the feasibility study.
While these takeaways and the
lessons learned were gained from tribal
and local government experiences,
heterogenous or marginalized local
governmental communities that are
looking to find ways to cooperate can
also benefit from them.
1 Wilson, Alcantara, and Rodon 2015. https://www.
2 National Congress of American Indians report,
Johnson and Kaufmann, 2009, pg. vii.
Ph.D., is associate professor, Depart-
ment of Political Science, Univer-
sity of Western Ontario (calcanta@ MITCHELL BERG is city
administrator, Mahnomen, Minne-
sota (, and
adjunct instructor, Department of
Government, Minnesota State Univer-
sity, Mankato. JENNIFER NELLES,
Ph.D., is a researcher, professor,
and adviser, New York, New York
( Alcantara
and Nelles are coauthors of A Quiet
Evolution: The Emergence of Indig-
enous – Local Intergovernmental
Partnerships in Canada, published by University
of Toronto Press in 2016.
are beginning
to realize
that they
can benefit
from entering
... For example, the city and county of Mahnomen are both located entirely within the White Earth reservation in Minnesota. In 2016, the tribal and county boards began exploring potential areas of mutual interest and alignment, the three jurisdictions identified public safety as a shared interest and embarked upon a feasibility study to create a new, joint public safety and law enforcement center (Alcantara, Berg, and Nelles, 2017). The city now contracts with the White Earth Tribal Police for law enforcement in the city. ...
Full-text available
Inter-governmental relationships involving tribes must be respectful of tribal sovereignty and native people’s rights, yet most non-Native public managers are not educated about this and thus are unprepared to engage constructively in collaboration with tribal governments. This chapter provides a basic orientation to tribal sovereignty, self-determination, reservations and ceded territories, and Public Law 280, and illuminates their relevance to nearly any policy domain, including child welfare, education, economic development, land use and planning, environmental stewardship, and law enforcement. While there are positive examples of constructive and mutually respectful synergy, unfortunately there are also many instances of antagonistic failures to collaborate, with damaging consequences for Native and non-Native communities. I illustrate these complex dynamics through a single policy issue – roadway safety in reservations – before concluding with a summary of a few key takeaways for exploring collaboration with tribal governments. KEYWORDS ● Tribal sovereignty ● Indigenous governance ● Tribes and intergovernmental relationships ● Native self-determination ● American Indian reservations ● Roadway safety in reservations
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