Long Simmering Tribal Sovereignty Issues Flair Up in Mille Lacs County

According to an 1855 Treaty, the south shore of Lake Mille Lacs is part of the Mille Band of Ojibwe Reservation. So are the cities of Isle and Wahkon; Kathio State Park; the Bayview community
According to an 1855 Treaty, the south shore of Lake Mille Lacs is part of the Mille Band of Ojibwe Reservation. So are the cities of Isle and Wahkon; Kathio State Park  and the Bayview community. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Mille Lacs County and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe are in a contentious disagreement about  law enforcement roles and responsibilities, and more importantly, tribal sovereignty. The disagreement raises significant questions about the reach of tribal jurisdiction that goes back to an 1855 treaty.

The immediate dispute came on June 21, when, with no warning, the Mille Lacs County Board of Commissioners revoked the law enforcement agreement with the Band, an effort to severely restrict the band’s law enforcement powers. An article in the Mille Lacs County Times — County revokes policing agreement with Mille Lacs Band — provides important context:

While the action involves an eight-year-old law enforcement agreement, a generations-old land dispute over boundaries remains largely at issue. The band recognizes its territory as 61,000 acres established by the Treaty of 1855 made between the U.S. government and the Chippewa [Ojibwe] band. The county recognizes band territory as the 4,000 acres held in federal trust due to a number of acts and developments since the treaty. The longstanding conflict complicates a lot of things that are already complex.

Go back a few months, at a key part the dispute grew out of the Band’s request to get federal law enforcement help under the 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act. According to a media release from the Band, the federal decision sided with the Band’s view of its boundaries:

Last November, the Office of the Solicitor of the U.S. Department of Interior released Solicitor’s Opinion M-37032, a legal opinion concluding that the 1855 Reservation boundaries are still intact, contradicting claims by the State and the County that the reservation was diminished and disestablished by subsequent treaties and laws.

This generated  a strong reaction in Mille Lacs County.

County officials apparently fear the broader implications of acknowledging the Band’s 1855 boundary. According to the County resolution:

“If these areas are within a reservation, the legal consequences are unclear,” said [County Administrator Pat] Oman. “If the 61,000 acre reservation boundary was conclusively established, it is likely that the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe would claim the authority to assert jurisdiction over all of the reservation, including non-Band members. Mille Lacs County residents are entitled to the protections of Minnesota law.”
The disputed land includes the incorporated cities of Isle and Wahkon; Kathio State Park; the Bayview community; and the entirety of the southern shoreline of Lake Mille Lacs. Many Minnesota citizens with no affiliation to the Mille Lacs Band own property and live within this area.

The County’s decision to pull out of the law enforcement agreement is an effort to strip the Band of its policing powers under the current agreement. According to the Band’s media release, if the County has its way, Tribal Police will:

  • No longer have access to the Criminal Justice Information System Data Exchange or other criminal tracking and analysis data.
  • Need to deliver all government records under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act to Mille Lacs and Pine counties.
  • No longer have access to Automated License Plate Reader data.
  • No longer have a Mutual Aid agreement with the County and other law enforcement agencies.
  • No longer have access to ARMER, the statewide emergency radio network.

Stay tuned. For additional coverage:

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