CNCounty News

Now I know how to get to know my neighbors

Cass County, Minn. Commissioner Neal Gaalswyk (right). Photo by Hector Emanuel

Key Takeaways

Neal Gaalswyk, Cass County, Minn. commissioner 


I grew up in a homogenous community in the ’50s and ’60s, and my only interaction with neighbors in the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe was when a foster kid would attend my school. 

My understanding of the poverty was incomplete.

I knew the tribes who lived on the reservation faced challenges, but I didn’t know much about them because we lived separate lives.

As a county commissioner, I learned more of our responsibilities with regard to the Leech Lake Nation, and we weren’t as separate as I once thought. 

We sometimes represent the same people, even though we’re elected to different offices.

Before I joined the Board, the commissioners worked out a letter of understanding with that tribe and it’s so simple that it’s embarrassing to think it took that long to figure out: Before the staff of the tribe or the county do something or propose something that will affect the other, they first talk to staff from the other body. As a board, we agree to meet twice a year. It’s really about building those relationships. That was the framework.

I like to read well-researched historical novels, so I sought out books that would give me insight into our indigenous people. I read “Empire of the Summer Moon,” “Killers of the Flower Moon” and “Blood and Thunder.” 

That background has helped me in conversation, even if the stories weren’t about tribes in Minnesota.

My faith is very important to me, and my daughter gave me a copy of “The First Nation’s Version,” which relates the New Testament in the indigenous storytelling style. Reading the gospels, which I knew well, from that perspective has helped me find the right words to communicate meaningfully.

We can say things, and we can think we’re saying the right things. We think that saying the words “king” and “kingdom” denote something good, but if you’ve been subjugated by a king and a kingdom, that’s totally different.

I really try to hear what people are saying when they’re talking, rather than trying to form my response. 


“Now I Know…” offers words of wisdom from county officials who share what they have learned from challenging aspects of their position. 

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