Is the Mille Lacs Band going to take it all back?

by Mary Jevne

The Mille Lacs Band spells out its agenda.

On January 14, 1989 Art Gahbow, Chief Executive Officer of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, stated "As of right now we are on the offensive. We are on the attack. To state it simply, we will take it back.... The goal is to get back the original Mille Lacs, Sandy Lake and Rice Lake Reservations. The Lake Lena area will also be expanded.... One way or the other, we will take it back.... The State of Minnesota does not understand that we are a sovereign government.... Commissioner of Natural Resources Don Wedll, I want you to have our 1837 Treaty litigation underway in the next six months.... All work hours, all business transactions, all contract negotiations will be aimed at one goal: restoration of the reservation lands.... We will not back down. We are on the attack. There is no surrender."

Marge Anderson, current CEO of the Mille Lacs Band had this to say in regard to Indian sovereignty and the tribe's view of their powers. There must be a distinct, unique group of people. These people must have a distinct language, a distinct moral and religious structure and a distinct cultural base. They must have a specific geographical area that they control and regulate. Within that area, they must possess governmental powers including the power to tax and the power to change their government as they see fit. These governmental powers must be acknowledged by the people who are subject to them.

In a speech given before the American Indian Research and Policy Institute, Chief Anderson made the following comments. "....As part of our real estate transaction, the United States agreed that our tribal government would exercise sovereign authority within our reservation boundaries, and that we would be funded forever by the federal government. Today we exercise that sovereignty over our domain. That is the price the United States paid for taking our land. That is the price we paid. That price gives us the right to regulate all matters impacting the Mille Lacs reservation, including civil regulatory jurisdiction, environmental jurisdiction, taxation and land use."

It is with these goals and principles in mind, that the Mille Lacs Band's tribal government has proceeded with tax agreements with the Minnesota Department of Revenue, a police reciprocity agreement with Mille Lacs County, tribal license requirements for those doing business with the Band, a Memorandum Of Understanding for enforcing environmental regulations with the Federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and other agreements and contracts. Again, all these efforts are aimed at expanding the control of the Mille Lacs tribal government and re-establishing the Mille Lacs Reservation. Their stated goal would expand the area of jurisdiction from a little over 3,400 acres to more than 61,000 acres in the Mille Lacs Lake area. The townships of Isle Harbor, South Harbor and Kathio as well as the cities of Wahkon, Isle and most of Onamia would fall under tribal jurisdiction.

The feds come to the rescue?

On November 2, 1999 the Community Resource Service Division of the United States Justice Department sent out federal mediator Gus Gaynett to discuss the possibility of mediating some of the issues between Mille Lacs County and the Mille Lacs Band tribal government. According to Mr. Gaynett, his agency can not resolve legal disputes, but he could help resolve issues resulting from racial and ethnic problems. This made area residents nervous. First of all, the U.S. Justice Department sided with the Mille Lacs Band in their 1837 Treaty hunting and fishing rights claims, not with area citizens. In fact the federal government almost always supports the claims and agendas of Indian tribes. How neutral would the federal government's mediator be? Secondly, the problems at Mille Lacs are all based on legal disputes over power, control and jurisdiction. If the federal mediator could not solve these types of issues, what was he doing here? And finally, as Mr. Gaynett soon found out on November 2, people were more angry with the federal government than with the Mille Lacs Band. For it's the federal government that is not upholding the Constitution and it is federal Indian policy that has created the problems at Mille Lacs and around the Country.

Mille Lacs County agrees to limited mediation.

Federal Mediator Gaynett met with Mille Lacs County Commissioners and they agreed to sit down and talk about three limited areas, largely financial in nature, with the Mille Lacs Band. Mille Lacs County would not agree to discuss the legal issues of the size and boundaries of the Mille Lacs Reservation and whether or not the tribe has governmental powers in the disputed area.

Mr. Gaynett brought this information to the Mille Lacs Band on November 4th. The Mille Lacs band said that they would agree to discuss the issues raised by Mille Lacs County only if the issues of zoning authority and fee to trust land issues were included in the negotiations. Zoning is of course a legal dispute which can not be mediated, and fee to trust land procedures are set by the federal government and are currently being re-written. Yet the federal mediator brought the tribes proposal back to the County.

The Band's items for mediation were brought to the County Commissioners at the November 16, 1999 meeting. A motion to remove zoning issues from the mediation process and invite the Band to discuss zoning at an open county board meeting was made by Commissioner Frank Courteau. The motion was adopted by a 3 to 2 vote with Commissioners Tellinghuisen and Oberfeld voting along with Courteau in favor and Commissioners Jackson and Reiman voting against. Currently, the Mille Lacs Band has not responded as to whether or not they will agree to mediate the remaining issues. A decision was expected by December 9, 1999.

Area residents get active.

As a result of actions by the Mille Lacs Band to extend their area of jurisdiction and their authority over area residents, members of the Lake Mille Lacs Association formed an ad-hoc committee and called themselves the Mille Lacs Tea Party. The name was chosen because of the stark similarity of reasons colonists broke with the British Empire, and the event most famous in launching the American Revolution. Foremost was taxation and regulation without representation. Mille Lacs area residents can not vote in tribal elections, yet if the Mille Lacs Band is successful, they will have zoning, regulatory and taxing power in a large part of the Mille Lacs area.

The Mille Lacs Tea Party agrees with the County Commissioners who voted to remove zoning issues from the mediation process. In fact they gathered and presented to the Mille Lacs County Board, more than 2,400 signatures on a petition demanding that Mille Lacs County resolve the Reservation Boundary issue with legal means if necessary.

Eroding local, county and state jurisdiction through mediation is not the way to solve the reservation boundary issue with the Mille Lacs Band. Consent agreements such as the Memorandum Of Understanding between the EPA, MPCA and the Band only weaken the State and County position that the original Mille Lacs Indian Reservation was disestablished.

Here are the facts.

In 1855 the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa gave up all right, title and interest in any other land in Minnesota Territory in exchange for monetary payments, goods and services and the establishment of a 61,000 acre reservation on the South shore of Lake Mille Lacs.

Under treaties in 1863 and 1864, the Mille Lacs Reservation was sold to the United States.

In the Nelson Act of 1889, the Mille Lacs Band and other Chippewa Bands agreed to transfer all ownership of all their reservations in Minnesota, except Red Lake and

White Earth, to the United States. The Mille Lacs Band also agreed to give up their "right of occupancy" on the former Mille Lacs Reservation.

In 1913 the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Mille Lacs Reservation was in fact disestablished.

In the 1930's the United States re-purchased a few thousand acres and held it in trust for the Mille Lacs Band thus creating what many now refer to as the Mille Lacs "reservation".

The 1913 Supreme Court decision has not been overturned. This important ruling has been ignored by the United States Department of Interior, the U.S. Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. It has been kept hidden by the Mille Lacs Band, which has tried to create a lengthy list of agreements, contracts and court rulings in direct conflict with the Supreme Court. Recognition of the 61,000 acre Mille Lacs Reservation was part of the out of court settlement that was narrowly defeated at the Legislature in the Mille Lacs 1837 Treaty case!

State and local government not responding either.

The position of the federal government is clear: promote tribal sovereignty and government to government relations at all agencies, at every level and at every opportunity. President Clinton has ordered it be done! But the sad fact for Minnesotans is that our state and local governments have often lacked the courage to fight for their citizens rights.

The State of Minnesota has entered into unconstitutional tax agreements with Indian tribes. It has relinquished its authority and thereby the rights of its citizens, by entering into Memorandums of Understanding and settlements that recognize illegal tribal boundaries. The State has not joined the fight of non-tribal citizens like Keck Melby of Grand Portage, Minnesota, who is being sued in tribal court by the Grand Portage Band to comply with tribal zoning laws. Where are our state agencies when it comes to protecting their constituents?

Mille Lacs County, despite having held the line on mediation of zoning issues with the Band, and resolving that it does not recognize the 61,000 acre old Mille Lacs Reservation boundaries, has not enforced zoning ordinances against projects by the Mille Lacs Band or its members on fee land while red tagging non-tribal members for similar violations.

Many Mille Lacs area residents are witnessing first hand, the fulfillment of tribal CEO Art Gahbow's statement; "....the goal is to get it all way or the other, we will take it back...we are on the attack." As citizens, we must be ever vigilant. We must not allow federal, state and local governments to steal our individual rights. Don't think that just because you live outside of a current or former Indian reservation, that this does not affect you. If your neighbor's rights have been destroyed, of what value are your own? It can happen to you next! The situation at Mille Lacs is not unique. Similar disputes are occurring all across the U.S. from New York to California.

We must get involved.

Join organizations like PERM and the Lake Mille Lacs Association. Attend public meetings, talk to your neighbors and elected officials, stay informed and write letters to the editor. Learn how the candidates stand on tribal sovereignty and other issues then vote accordingly. Do you want to be told by a tribal government that is not bound by the U.S. Constitution or the Constitution of the state in which you live, that you must live according to their laws, that you must pay your taxes to them? Then get involved!


Mary Jevne, Chairman
Governmental Affairs Committee
Lake Mille Lacs Association