The Bois Forte Land Back backstory

The Bois Forte Band of Chippewa acquired 28,000 acres of land within its traditional reservation boundaries this month, in what Native News Online describes as “the largest land-back agreement in Minnesota and one of the largest-ever in Indian Country.”

“The Bois Forte Band plans to directly manage the restored lands under a forest management plan that emphasizes conservation and environmental protection, balanced with economic and cultural benefits to the Band and its members,” the article said.

The headlines are calling this “historic” or that the tribe is “celebrating” the return of land. While true, this land-back story deserves context: An explanation of why Bois Forte needed to get its land back in the first place.

Minnesota’s Native Nations

The Bois Forte Ojibwe signed a treaty with the U.S. government on April 7, 1866, transferring two million acres to the United States, MnOpedia says.

It’s reservation encompasses 105,284 acres, or about 5 percent of its original territory. Until this land transfer, the Tribe only held approximately 30,000 acres, or 1.5 percent of its original lands.

Bois Forte, like many Indigenous Nations and Bands, doesn’t control all the land within its reservation. The Dawes Act of 1887 broke up reservation lands, forcing Native Nations into the European concept of private land ownership. Under the law, Indigenous families received individual allotments, in some cases 160 acres.

After allotments were made to individuals and families, the government declared any leftover reservation land “excess” and made it available to white settlers and businesses. The end result was opening once communally held lands to commerce.

The French called the Indians of the area “Bois Forte”, or “strong wood,” because they were “living in the densest forests of what is now extreme northern Minnesota,” the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council said.

Bois Forte’s pines were highly prized by timber speculators and settlers. “By the late 1910s, the Bois Forte land was stripped of timber, and dams built to facilitate logging had destroyed the vast wild rice beds of the Rainy Lake watershed,” MnOpedia said.

The good news is that Bois Forte’s 28,000-acre land acquisition nearly doubles its land base. That’s worth celebrating.

At the same time, we need to acknowledge that this act shouldn’t have been necessary had the United States acted with integrity.

The Bois Forte land return is a step in righting an old wrong.

Yet neither the state or federal government participated in the repair. It is an act of Indigenous resilience.

The 28,000 acres had belonged to PotlatchDeltic Corp., a lumber company. Bois Forte acquired the land in partnership with The Conservation Fund and the Indian Land Tenure Foundation along with its subsidiary Indian Land Capital Company.

The Conservation Fund works to “protect America’s most critical lands and waters to provide greater access to nature, strengthen local economies and enhance climate resiliency.”

The Indian Land Tenure Foundation’s mission is “to assist Indian nations and people in the recovery of their rightful homelands.”

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