March 9, 2005: Features
By Peter Slevin ’78
A bitter wind is blowing snow across the Minnesota prairie as Helen Blue-Redner ’85 drives into a lonely subdivision. It is mid-afternoon, and the thermometer on the Buick Park Avenue reads 2 degrees, a considerable improvement since dawn, when it was 25 below. As she guides the silver sedan past a water tower, a sturdy gymnasium, and a group of houses, she explains that 17 housing units may not seem like much, but it’s better than the two solitary homes that stood there before 1978.
These houses, she explains, represent their occupants’ first chance at ownership, no small accomplishment on an Indian reservation that did not have plumbing in every dwelling until a decade ago. The tour continues as Blue-Redner returns to the main road and picks up speed, heading toward something that seems a mirage. Drawing closer, the bright lights of a casino appear in the gloaming. It is a weekday, but dozens of cars and pickups pack the plowed parking lot.
“This place up here right now is writing all of the checks,” Blue-Redner explains. “Very nice to be able to have it.”
Blue-Redner is the elected chairman of the Upper Sioux, an Indian tribe that sits on a bank of the Minnesota River and a future very different from anything most of its 400-plus members have ever known. Her job, as she sees it, is to guide the tribe beyond its fragile economic existence and the political and social disparities that have defined its existence for more than a century. Beyond the reservation, that means taking a lively role in Minnesota politics, where Blue-Redner is challenging the state’s Republican governor on casino issues. It’s an unusually public role for an Indian leader, especially one whose power base occupies barely 1,200 acres.
The casino, for better or worse, has become the heart of the tribe’s existence. Not long after Blue-Redner’s father dug into his savings to help complete the tribe’s first gaming center, originally a 7,000-square-foot space called Firefly Creek, its larger and snazzier successor near Granite Falls is generating scores of jobs and millions of dollars for Upper Sioux coffers. Amid gleaming rows of slot machines, bells ding and lights flash 24 hours a day. But Blue-Redner, who spent her girlhood with five siblings in a two-room home without running water, is discovering that money is creating headaches along with the opportunities.
“We are lousy capitalists,” Blue-Redner says ruefully. “Right now we’re in the gaming period and it’s not all good. That’s the weird thing.”
To raise standards, Blue-Redner has declared that no Upper Sioux member will receive a share of casino profits at age 18 without finishing high school or earning a GED. The tribal council has begun financial skills training, and Blue-Redner is pushing to create economic possibilities beyond the windowless casino walls. She points to a site for an RV park that will open this summer and the prospective layout of an industrial zone. Because the past is tightly, at times angrily, linked in her mind with where the tribe finds itself today, she speaks of the need to cultivate sovereignty and self-respect.
“People are always testing us. That’s what happens in government. That’s what happens in commerce. It’s so important that we have a visible presence, instead of always hiring other people to do business for us,” the 44-year-old Blue-Redner says. “What should get us there is us. We’re not going to sit there passively and wait. My folks always taught me, no one’s going to do it for you. Get out and do it yourself.”
The Upper Sioux, created from Indian bands that scattered after the United States-Dakota War of 1862, live in a rolling landscape about an hour east of the South Dakota border. “You do have to like mosquitoes to live here,” Blue-Redner says, laughing. A fondness for ice wouldn’t hurt, either. Blue-Redner keeps a sleeping bag in her car, along with blankets, flares, candy bars, a shovel for digging out of snowdrifts, and kitty litter for extra traction. Growing up here, she remembers an “idyllic childhood,” even without indoor plumbing. (On that subject, she shrugs: “You’re used to what you’re used to.”) The kids swam in the river for hours on end during the summer, and skated and hiked when the Minnesota froze over.
The tribe numbered about 60 or 70 members when Helen Blue was a girl. There were plenty of playmates, especially as the third youngest; she has four sisters and a brother. Her father, who worked the electrical high wire, was often on the road. Her grandparents lived nearby. She remembers sleeping at their house and waking up in the morning. “We’d hear WCCO on the radio. We’d smell the food and hear Gram and Grampa talking Indian.”
She thinks of it as a time before things grew complicated.
“The innocence, the fun. There’s no politics, there’s no acrimony,” Blue-Redner says. “That is all taught later.”
Blue-Redner cannot precisely recall when she became aware of what she now calls disparities. It might have been in Granite Falls, the nearby town where many of the Upper Sioux shopped, worked and attended school. Or it might have been after she moved at age 10 to Bemidji in northern Minnesota, where her father had taken a job. What she remembers then and perceives now is an “almost invisible division between the Indian people of this area and the non-Indians. It always will be there, I’m completely convinced.” She is firm on this point even though her brother has become Granite Falls’ first Indian police chief.
Blue-Redner tells of confronting a teacher in Bemidji who she felt had been unfair to an Indian classmate from the Red Lake tribe. She asked the teacher to step into the hall and, defending her friend, said exactly what was on her mind. “How dare you!” the teacher responded. But Blue-Redner felt she had made her point. It was not the last time she would speak out.
At age 9, she began delivering the Minneapolis Star Tribune, tossing papers for four years, as she likes to say, whether the temperature was 50 below or 100 above. By 12, she was helping out at a legal services office where her mother paid her $20 weekly salary. At 16, she started a newspaper for the Leech Lake tribe, filling it each month with news from the tribal council and word of births, deaths, and other local doings.
Why a newspaper? “It’s an acorn-tree thing,” Blue-Redner says. Her mother, Betty, a non-Indian daughter of Quaker parents, steeped herself in Indian affairs and the Dakota language. After marrying Dean Blue, she published a newspaper for the Chippewa, dividing typesetting and pasteup duties with a colleague.
Blue-Redner calls her mother her hero. She describes Betty Blue as smart, well-read, and widely traveled, and says she taught that “one should always challenge oneself and serve humanity.” During Blue-Redner’s sophomore year in high school in Bemidji, her mother suggested that she consider prep school.
“What’s prep school?” Blue-Redner replied.
Sight unseen, Blue-Redner decided to apply to Northfield Mount Hermon in western Massachusetts, a million miles from the plains in every way. Founded as the Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies in 1879 and later merged with the Mount Hermon School for Boys, the exclusive school marketed itself on excellence and diversity. Its alumni include singer Natalie Cole, scholar Edward Said ’57, Olympic marathon winner Frank Shorter, actress Uma Thurman, and industry stars such as the former heads of Burger King and Time Inc. The school awarded Blue-Redner a full scholarship.
Blue-Redner departed for her junior year with her mother, now divorced, behind the wheel of a Suburu without a radio. She remembers the two of them singing their way giddily across the Midwest. The play list included plenty of Girl Scout songs; her mother was a troop leader. When they reached their destination, the campus seemed lush, gorgeous and utterly forbidding: “I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into? I don’t think I belong here.’”
Later, when her mother asked how long it had taken to get used to life without her, Blue-Redner replied, “Oh, about two hours.” She suddenly felt that her life in Minnesota had been narrow. She understood how much she had never seen, done, or considered.
“I feel like I truly took my first breath of air when I got there. It was the turning point of my life,” Blue-Redner says. Among other things, she learned how to learn. Already a self-described band geek, skilled on the trumpet, French horn, and baritone, she continued with music and converted her Leech Lake newspaper experience into a spot on the school paper. She does not remember whose idea it was to apply to Princeton when it came time to move on, but she is confident it wasn’t hers.
Following her prep school precedent, it was not until she arrived for classes that she saw Princeton. She found it “well-heeled, patrician, you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours.
“I definitely thought the ‘cream of the cream of the cream of the crop discussion’ was a bit over the top. It was scary, though. Princeton’s a very intimidating place,” Blue-Redner says, adding that elite Northfield Mount Hermon felt diverse by comparison. She thought Princeton then took precious few steps toward “trying to embrace diversity in any meaningful way.”
By the same token, Blue-Redner thought many minority students isolated themselves. “I just didn’t see why the people of color felt they had to repair to the Third World Center,” she explains. “I felt there should have been more effort to bring people together. I feel that way today. I never understand what’s the point in staying apart.”
She recalls devouring the New York Times every morning and fitting in happily enough socially and academically. But the music department didn’t suit her; her interests tended toward performance (she was taking voice lessons and working with an opera company) at a time when Princeton’s department was more focused on history and theory. Looking for an exit, she was accepted at Oberlin and the New England Conservatory of Music before she decided to take a break.
Blue-Redner spent the next two years dividing her time between Boston and home, working on Indian issues and rediscovering threads that connect her Upper Sioux upbringing with her activism today. Returning to Princeton for her junior year, she switched to political anthropology, writing her thesis on distinctions among urban and prairie Indians. Not the most creative topic, she concedes, but she is proud of getting an A on it.
She moved to Boston after graduation and met her husband, Frank Redner, a Western Shoshone urban planner schooled at Stanford and MIT. In Reno, Nev., she worked on a study of Washoe Indians and did an oral history project on her mother-in-law, the last in a long line of Western Shoshone doctors. It became a book. The work seemed purposeful, but with two children and other ambitions, she headed home again. That was 10 years ago, before she entered tribal politics, before she was elected to the Echo, Minn., city council, before casino gambling had done so much to transform her tribe’s fortunes.
The reservation sits on a river bluff at a place called Pejuhutazizi Kapi, or “the place where they dig for yellow medicine.” Founded in 1938 with a federal grant of 746 acres from the once-vast Dakota territory, the ground is still barely a speck on the map. The tribe, one of the poorest among Minnesota’s tribes, has prospered from the slot machines that never sleep.
The old Firefly was replaced in 2003 with the Prairie’s Edge Casino Resort, stocked with 600 slots, a clutch of blackjack tables, an indoor pool, 87-room hotel, and restaurant. The annual payroll is $10 millon, with about 40 of the 385 jobs going to tribe members. The casino is the largest employer in a three-county area, says Blue-Redner. Even she is astonished by the receipts, which fuel a seven-figure annual operating budget for the tribe. The tribe’s median per capita income was about $7,000 per year before the Firefly opened; today, it tops $22,000.
“We finally have economic ground on which we can walk, for the first time ever,” says Blue-Redner, as she heads toward the casino command post, where employees monitor 285 security cameras for cheating and other trouble. After starting work in the 1990s as a casino marketer, she owes her current post to her decision to defeat the incumbent chairman in 2001. She is not the first woman to lead the tribe, but she feels she overcame negatives in being an educated woman in a male-dominated society that has not always considered a college degree a plus.
She hardly inherited a rose garden, even with the fresh casino cash. Blue-Redner talks of the tribe’s “terrible” history with alcohol, an ongoing methamphetamine problem, and more broken families that she can count. Federal money has been limited by the tribe’s size and clout. Although each adult member receives a gaming payout — she will not say how much, just that it is too little to live on – the cash is not solving as many problems as she had hoped. More than a few members live below the poverty line.
“You know, the Indians and money, they don’t go hand in hand. They get it, it’s gone, they’re broke. The people don’t know what to think of it or how to manage it. It’s pretty depressing,” laments Blue-Redner. She remains sensitive to outside perceptions. “People say, ‘They got all this money now, how come they can’t get it together?’ There’s no complete wrong. There’s no complete right. There are just a whole lot of gray areas.”
Blue-Redner spends her days working on those gray areas. Arguing that most Indians “haven’t been trained as capitalists,” she and her colleagues brought in financial planners to offer counseling on the basics of savings and investment, from meeting a monthly mortgage to keeping insurance paid up. They are establishing educational funds for the tribe’s children and hope to endow a scholarship to casino-management school in Las Vegas. Elders are beginning a series of meetings with Upper Sioux adolescents, warning them in terms Betty Blue would appreciate that “the world’s not going to come to them.” The programs go back to mantras of self-respect, self-sufficiency, and sovereignty. To illustrate her point, she brings out an aerial map of the reservation and surrounding land the tribe hopes to acquire. One spot has been set aside for a cultural interpretation center on the history of the Upper Sioux, including the 1862 fight, and the tribe’s present-day doings.
Yes, the white authorities built a monument, Blue-Redner says, “but it’s pretty much to ‘the damn Indians.’ We feel we have to tell our own story. I don’t know how we’re going to pull this off, but we’re definitely determined to get it done.”
Last year, fed up by pressure on Minnesota tribes to contribute $350 million to the strapped state treasury, Blue-Redner challenged Gov. Tim Pawlenty to a debate. She spoke out sharply against his proposal, firing off op-ed pieces that asserted the governor’s call for a “better deal” was a misguided appeal to racial prejudice. Calling it tantamount to a tax prohibited by federal law, she said Pawlenty’s accounting was bad and his politics were worse.
Blue-Redner, elected by the leaders of the state’s 10 other tribes to chair the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, has been relentless. She pointed to a Pawlenty aide’s showy trip to Las Vegas to consult with casino interests and accused the governor of trying to balance the state budget on the backs of Indians. She said the tribes have paid hundreds of millions in state payroll taxes, and that the Upper Sioux alone have donated more than $1 million to local governments and civic causes.
“Collectively, the tribes have acquiesced by adopting a defensive posture. I, for one, will no longer subject our community to constantly justifying the air that we breathe,” Blue-Redner wrote Pawlenty in an open letter in October. “Please consider this: We should debate Indian gaming publicly. You tell your side, make your accusations, and make us look as bad as you can. We’ll tell our side — and we’ll tell the truth.”
Pawlenty’s chief of staff said the governor was “disappointed” by the tone of the letter and would take the debate invitation under advisement. That was the last Blue-Redner heard. In his state of the state address in January, which Blue-Redner watched carefully during a break in an Indian affairs council meeting in St. Cloud, Pawlenty reiterated his commitment not to raise taxes while regretting that the tribes seemed uninterested in his proposal. That left him, he said, free to explore other alternatives, including a possible joint casino project in the Twin Cities with two or three large tribes.
Joseph Day, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, sees in Blue-Redner the political profile of someone who is breaking with cultural norms. Often-times, he says, Indian leaders met controversy with a calculated freeze: “If I didn’t like what you said, I turned my back.” That is not how Blue-Redner does business, whatever the results.
“She says what’s on her mind. She dares to say what no others dare to say. Oftentimes, the truth is more difficult to swallow,” says Day, who believes Blue-Redner is also pushing past the early politics of the American Indian Movement. “I think she’s got the next dimension: ‘Here are some of the solutions.’”
A self-described go-getter who is extremely confident in her convictions, Blue-Redner admits that her hurry-up style has caused friction, particularly among older tribe members accustomed to a slower pace. She recalls someone telling her she was trying to do too much, too fast, and says of her years in her job, “I have grown much more understanding, for one thing.” Yet she does not apologize, asserting that times have changed.
“We have to get with the program in a much faster time frame these days,” Blue-Redner says. “We are in a very aggressive position and it’s a position that needs to continue for 20 years. Part of it is to encourage [members] to think of the future of the tribe as a whole.”
She is deciding what comes next. With much undone, she expects to run for another four years as Upper Sioux leader, and she is finishing a second term on the town council in Echo, 13 miles from the reservation. She lives there with her husband and three children, although the eldest spends the school year at Northfield Mount Hermon. Politicians in Minnesota’s resurgent Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party have talked with her about a seat in the state legislature, a prospect she finds tantalizing. She does not rule out running for governor one day.
Until casino gambling shuffled the equation, Indians “were just part of the landscape,” Blue-Redner maintains. She believes that even now, some leaders have been too slow to seize a political opportunity that she considers a necessity. She points to the battalions of non-Indian handlers and lobbyists doing work that she believes Indians should do themselves.
“That’s why the newspapers started calling. They had found a tribal leader who had an opinion,” Blue-Redner says. “That’s why when this thing heated up with the governor, I decided I wouldn’t stay silent. I couldn’t stay silent.”
Peter Slevin ’78 is a Washington Post national correspondent based in Chicago.