The boundaries of the Mille Lacs reservation in central Minnesota exist now as they did in 1855, a federal judge has ruled.
Friday’s order by U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson, based in the District of Minnesota, is a major victory for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and effectively declares the reservation to be approximately 61,000 acres along the south shore of Lac Mille Lacs – encompassing several municipalities – not the scattered few thousand acres that had been recognized by the state for much of the last century.
Nelson entered a partial summary judgment for the band in the ongoing lawsuit filed in 2017 by Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe against Mille Lacs County regarding the jurisdiction of the Mille Lacs Tribal Police.
In 2016, a law enforcement agreement between the Mille Lacs County Sheriff’s Office and the Mille Lacs Tribal Police was dissolved, giving sheriff’s deputies primary lawful authority over previously patrolled areas by the tribal police. As part of its argument as defendants in the lawsuit, Mille Lacs County claimed that the Mille Lacs Reservation had been removed or diminished by Congress in treaties and other actions in the years following the treaty of 1855.
In recent years, the group’s argument had been bolstered by a growing number of legal interpretations that had supported it, including the positions of the federal government and Governor Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison.
Nelson’s order was described as a historic step and a key decision by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in a press release on Saturday.
“While both the federal government and the state of Minnesota recognize the 1855 reservation boundary, Mille Lacs County has declined to do so,” the statement read. “While one of the main impacts of the decision will be to strengthen law enforcement on the reservation, the emotional impact for band members goes far beyond public safety.”
The county called the decision “disappointing,” said it plans to appeal, and noted the case’s final destination may be the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a statement late Monday, Mille Lacs County Coordinator Dillon Hayes said, “In the meantime, we are evaluating the impact of this decision on the thousands of non-tribal residents and businesses in Mille Lacs County across the 61,000 acres, in addition to government functions of the county and the three cities and townships in the 61,000 acres. This will be a significant change for the many area residents and businesses who for over a century have lived with the common understanding that their land was not on an Indian reservation.
Within the 1855 boundaries are Isle, Wahkon, Vineland, and part of Onamia, communities that were largely populated and ruled by non-tribal members.
In the 93-page opinion, which included a lengthy review of 19th and early 20th century treaties, congressional proceedings and historical documentation, Nelson asserted that Congress had never canceled the reservation in a manner Claire.
“For more than 160 years, Congress has never clearly expressed an intent to remove or diminish the Thousand Lakes Reservation,” Nelson wrote. “The Court therefore upholds what the Band has maintained for the better part of two centuries — the boundaries of the Mille Lacs Reserve remain as they were under Section 2 of the 1855 Treaty.”
In the ruling, the judge said that although there were numerous attempts to evict the Mille Lacs residents from the area and settlers were allowed to encroach on the territory of the 1855 lands, the record showed that the government continued to treat the land as a reserve.
“The treaty of 1863 … reserved to the band an indefinite right to occupy its reserve, conditional only on the good conduct of the band. This right is inconsistent with the “present and complete surrender of all tribal interests” in the reservation,” Nelson’s ruling said. “…To the extent that the treaty is ambiguous, the historical context, contemporary understanding of the band, and subsequent congressional treatment of the reservation all support the conclusion that the 1863 treaty did not nullify the reservation. At the very least, the record does not demonstrate the “clear” congressional intent required for dissolution. »
In his view, Nelson repeatedly noted the efforts of Shaboshkung and other Ojibwa ancestors to hold the United States accountable for honoring President Abraham Lincoln’s word that the group could remain in their homeland forever, noted the group in its press release.
“This decision reaffirms what Shaboshkung began to fight for in the 1860s, what all leaders have pursued since and what we have always known – that our reserve has never been diminished, that we are irremovable and that this reserve will be our home in perpetuity,” Mille Lacs Band Executive Director Melanie Benjamin said in the statement.
“We sincerely hope that this decision will allow us to move beyond the need to fight with the county of Mille Lacs for our very existence. Instead, we invite the county – and all of our local governments – to join us and join us in the fight for a better future for all of our communities for generations to come.
Friday’s decision does not fully resolve the case, as issues related to the law enforcement dispute remain unresolved.
Pioneer Press writer Dave Orrick contributed to this report.