Supreme Court Takes Mille Lacs Treaty Case

On June 8, 1998 the United States Supreme Court granted the State of Minnesota's petition for certiorari in the 1837 Mille Lacs Treaty Case. While the Court has not ruled on the petitions of the Landowners and Counties as of press time, regardless of how the Court rules, as full parties to the lawsuit, the Landowners will participate in every phase of this appeal. Their attorney's will send in written briefs and evidence as well as make oral arguments before the Court.

The State of Minnesota appealed on three main issues which are presently before the Court. 1) An 1850 presidential order that the defense argues terminated the Chippewa's temporary privilege to hunt and fish on the lands and waters they had sold in 1837. 2) An 1855 Treaty signed by the Mille Lacs Band in which they agreed to give up "all right, title and interest in and to" all lands in Minnesota except for the reservations established in that treaty. 3) The "Equal Footing Doctrine" and 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protecting State's rights and powers to govern.

The Landowners raised two key defenses in addition to the three they presented that were also in the State's petition. 1) An 1889 act of Congress which disestablished all reservations in Minnesota except Red Lake and White Earth. The act removed the former reservation lands from "Indian country" and placed the lands under the jurisdiction of the State of Minnesota. 2) The Indian Claims Commission, a special forum set up by Congress to settle once and for all time, any Indian treaty dispute brought forward by the Tribes. The Chippewa successfully brought claims under the 1837 Treaty and accepted the terms of the awarded settlement. By doing so, under the terms of the Commission set by Congress, the Indians were forever barred from further action under the treaties for which they had brought claims.

While the Supreme Court has not ruled on the Landowners' and Counties petitions, it's now almost a certainty that the Court will decide the case on the three main issues as presented by the Landowners, Counties and State of Minnesota. According to Supreme Court watchers, it's not uncommon for the High Court to grant only one petition in a case where there are more than one presented.

This June 8th decision is viewed by legal experts as a huge accomplishment for the Landowners, Counties and the State of Minnesota. While several thousand cases are appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court each year, only around one hundred are accepted for review. Once this mathematical mountain has been overcome however, the High Court ends up reversing about two thirds of the cases it hears. The odds have suddenly tipped dramatically in favor of the defense in this complex litigation. According to Mille Lacs Band Commissioner of Natural Resources in the newspaper Indian Country Today, the Bands were surprised by the Court decision to hear the case. He also said, "This is not where the Bands want to be." Referring to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Although this case has been going on since the Mille Lacs Band sued Minnesota in the early 1990s, it will now likely draw to a rapid conclusion. Written briefs and all the supporting evidence on the issues currently within the scope of the June 8th ruling are due on July 23, 1998. Although a date for oral arguments has not been set, they are expected to take place sometime late next fall or winter. A decision on whether or not the Chippewa will continue to enjoy special privileges not afforded the rest of the citizens of Minnesota will likely come a year from now. In the mean time, tribal harvest and co-management of public natural resources by non-accountable Indian Bands will continue under the terms of the lower court decisions in the case.