A Win for North Dakota’s Three Affiliated Tribes, A Loss for Leadership in North Dakota

Imagine your family had owned a pristine fishing lake in northern Minnesota for generations. Then in the 1940s, the township — using dubious legal maneuvers — claimed the property for needed economic development.

Your grandfather tried for years to get the lake back but no one would listen. Succeeding mayors and their friends used the lake for their enjoyment; after enough years passed, no one really questioned the arrangement. No one even remembered your family had once owned the lake.

It became a painful part of your family story. Yet, after many years, a court unexpectedly ruled in your family’s favor. You were on the verge of reclaiming this beautiful lake, but the powers-that-be still pushed back with a startling demand:

“For years, this area has been used by many of us for hunting, fishing and other recreational activities,” they said. “Is there a plan to ensure that we maintain the access we have enjoyed in the past, free of charge?”

You are speechless. You think to yourself: “How can someone who cheated my family out of our property think they still have a right to use it?”

It sounds kind of silly. But this is pretty much the story of what has happened to the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota. In the 1940s, the federal government seized parts of their reservation for a flood control project. The result was the Garrison Dam project. It created a large reservoir, flooding reservation lands to protect other, predominantly white, cities downstream. A law said the federal government would return whatever land it did not need for flood control to the tribes.

Now in 2016, the federal government is getting around to returning the unused land.

It seems like a no-brainer, but some North Dakota leaders are pushing back. They seem to have no empathy for what the Three Affiliated Tribes have suffered — or an understanding of the law.

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