Mille Lacs Band Offers Deal for Legal Fees

According to published reports, Alan Garber - Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Don Wedll - Mille Lacs Band DNR Commissioner and unidentified state legislative leaders met on September 21, 1999 to talk about a proposed settlement of the Band's threatened lawsuit to recover about $4,200,000 for legal costs they incurred when they successfully sued the State for 1837 Treaty rights.

The Band sued the State of Minnesota in 1989 and the case progressed all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where last spring the Court narrowly upheld, in a 5-4 vote, lower court rulings that determined the Mille Lacs Band and seven other band's still have special hunting and fishing privileges for a large portion of east-central Minnesota.

Under federal statute, parties are allowed to recover their legal expenses they incurred in federal civil rights cases. The law was designed to make the court system accessible to ordinary and poor citizens who could not otherwise afford to bring legal action to protect their civil rights. In the Mille Lacs case however, the courts have found that the tribe's rights are usufructuary rights, which are a form of property rights. In fact the court has held that this "treaty right" is not a "right" held by individual citizens or members of the tribe, but a property right held by the tribal government. Many observers find it hard to understand how the tribes could successfully argue that enforcing equal fish and game laws was a violation of any tribal member's civil rights.

The Mille Lacs Band offered to accept one half of their claimed expenses or 4,000 acres of State land which would be put in federal trust for the tribe and taken out of state and local jurisdiction. This land transfer would in effect double the size of the land held in trust by the United States for the tribe. One legislative participant, State Senator Roger Moe of Erskin, a leader in the Democratic Farmer Labor Party, suggested that some of the land and money could be used to build state recreation trails on what would become tribal land. Some wonder why Moe, a long time supporter of the tribe's political agenda in St. Paul, would propose using state money and land to build and maintain trails that the state would not have legal authority to manage?