Mille Lacs’ Band wins major legal victory over latest government effort to ignore treaty rights

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe had a milestone win in U.S. District Court last week, in a case remarkable only for how clear-cut the decision should have been from the start.

U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson ruled that the Mille Lacs Band’s reservation boundaries set in the Treaty of 1855 are still its boundaries today, according to the Pioneer Press.

Seems pretty straight forward. But with treaties, things are never straight forward.

The backstory for this case is the backstory for every treaty between the U.S. government and Indigenous peoples: The Treaty of 1855 was terribly one sided in favor of the U.S. government, but even then settlers and their descendants tried, and continue to try, to break faith with Indigenous communities and renege on what small treaty promises they made.

The Mille Lacs Band’s boundaries were officially set in the Treaty of 1855.

Map outlining Anishinaable lands ceded by various treaties. Image: Why Treaties Matter.

In 2017, the Mille Lacs Band sued Mille Lacs County arguing its tribal police had jurisdiction within the reservation boundaries defined by treaty, the Pioneer Press article said. Mille Lacs County disagreed, arguing that Congress had diminished the 1855 treaty language.

Earlier this year, both Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison sided with the Mille Lacs Band in the dispute.

Judge Nelson ruled in favor of Mille Lacs.

The ruling “effectively declares the reservation is some 61,000 acres along the southern shore of Lake Mille Lacs — encompassing several municipalities — not the few thousand scattered acres that had been recognized by the state for much of the past century,” the Pioneer Press reported.

Reservations today. Image: Minnesota Department of Transportation

Mille Lacs County could appeal the decision.

The Mille Lacs Band has 4,700 enrolled member and more than 2,300 live within reservation boundaries, according to its website.

In a statement posted on its website, the Mille Lacs Band wrote:

The Mille Lacs Band filed the underlying lawsuit against Mille Lacs County because the county prevented Mille Lacs Tribal Police from being able to exercise law enforcement authority within the reservation boundary. While the federal government and State of Minnesota both acknowledge the 1855 reservation boundary, Mille Lacs County has refused to do so. While one of the primary impacts of the ruling will be to strengthen law enforcement on the reservation, the emotional impact for Band members goes far beyond public safety.

Some issues remain unresolved in other parts of the lawsuit.

To understand how we got here — and why Mille Lacs County argues the reservation has shrunk — the story needs more context. The origins of this dispute stretch back to 19th Century.

Pre-colonization, Indigenous peoples didn’t own individual plots of land. It was a foreign concept (literally). They saw land as a relative, not something owned.

Among the U.S. government’s efforts to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream colonial culture, It forced them to accept a private land ownership system.

For instance, the Treaty of 1855 allotted reservation land to individual Indigenous families, the Why Treaties Matter website said. “The U.S. intended Ojibwe people to be farmers on individually-owned plots of land.”

The U.S. Congress would later pass the Dawes Act of 1887, which codified this system of forcing Indigenous peoples into a private land ownership system.

When tribes held land communally, white settlers and businesses couldn’t buy it. With land held by individual families — families who could go into debt — settlers and businesses could buy chunks of reservation land, often through unscrupulous means.

Another major attack on Native sovereignty and treaty rights came in the 1950s and ’60s, in what is known as the Termination Era. The federal government tried to disestablish Indian reservations.

Mille Lacs has battled through the assimilation process and the Termination Era, and continues to fight for the treaty rights negotiated more than 160 years ago.

One thought on “Mille Lacs’ Band wins major legal victory over latest government effort to ignore treaty rights

  1. Thanks for bringing your talents to bear on this Scott Russell. This article is loaded with very useful content and I appreciate having this to share with friends, families and others that need to know.


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