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Federal judge affirms boundaries of Mille Lacs Reservation

The order granted partial summary judgment for the band as part of the ongoing lawsuit brought in 2017 by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe against Mille Lacs County concerning the jurisdiction of the Mille Lacs Tribal Police.

A sign along the highway says "Mille Lacs Indian Reservation"
The boundaries of the Mille Lacs Reservation were affirmed by a federal district judge in a ruling released Friday, March 4, 2022.
MPR News file photo

ST. PAUL — The boundaries of the Mille Lacs Reservation exist now as they did in 1855, a federal district judge opined in a ruling Friday, March 4.

The order from Senior U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson, benched in the District of Minnesota, granted partial summary judgment for the band as part of the ongoing lawsuit brought in 2017 by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe against Mille Lacs County concerning the jurisdiction of the Mille Lacs Tribal Police.

A map outlining the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation
Detail from 2021-2022 Minnesota Department of Transportation map showing the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation.
Contributed / Minnesota Department of Transportation

In 2016, a law enforcement agreement between the Mille Lacs County Sheriff’s Office and Mille Lacs Tribal Police dissolved, resulting in sheriff’s deputies having primary legal authority over areas previously patrolled by tribal police. As part of its argument as defendants in the suit, Mille Lacs County asserted the Mille Lacs Reservation had been disestablished or diminished by Congress in treaties and other actions in the years following the 1855 treaty.

1904-Railroad-and-Warehouse-Commission-map-detail.jpg
Detail from a 1904 Minnesota Railroad and Warehouse Commission map showing the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation being comprised primarily of the townships of Kathio, South Harbor and Isle Harbor.
Submitted.

Nelson’s order was described as a historic milestone and a key ruling by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in a news release Saturday.

“While the federal government and state of Minnesota both acknowledge the 1855 reservation boundary, Mille Lacs County has refused to do so,” the release stated. “While one of the primary impacts of the ruling will be to strengthen law enforcement on the reservation, the emotional impact for band members goes far beyond public safety.”

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In the 93-page opinion, which included a lengthy review of 19th century and early 20th century treaties, Congressional acts and historic documentation, Nelson asserted Congress never disestablished the reservation in a clear manner.

“Over the course of more than 160 years, Congress has never clearly expressed an intention to disestablish or diminish the Mille Lacs Reservation,” Nelson wrote. “The Court therefore affirms what the Band has maintained for the better part of two centuries — the Mille Lacs Reservation’s boundaries remain as they were under Article 2 of the Treaty of 1855.”

In the ruling, the judge stated although there were numerous attempts to remove the Mille Lacs people from the area and settlers were allowed to encroach on territory within the 1855 lands, the record showed the government continued to treat the land as a reservation.

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“The Treaty of 1863 … reserved to the Band an indefinite right to occupy its reservation, conditioned only on the Band’s good behavior. That right is inconsistent with the ‘present and total surrender of all tribal interests’ in the reservation,” Nelson’s ruling stated. “ … Insofar as the treaty is ambiguous, the historical context, the contemporary understanding of the Band, and subsequent treatment of the reservation by Congress all support the conclusion that the Treaty of 1863 did not disestablish the reservation. At the very least, the record does not demonstrate the ‘clear’ Congressional intention required for disestablishment.”

In her opinion, Nelson repeatedly noted the efforts of Shaboshkung and other Ojibwe ancestors to hold the United States accountable for keeping President Abraham Lincoln’s word that the band could remain on its homelands forever, the band noted in its release.

Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin
Melanie Benjamin of Onamia is the chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
Contributed / Melanie Benjamin

“This ruling reaffirms what Shaboshkung began fighting for in the 1860s, what every leader since has carried on, and what we have always known — that our reservation was never diminished, that we are Non-Removable, and that this reservation will be our home into perpetuity,” stated Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin in the release.

“It is our sincere hope that this decision will allow us to move beyond the need to fight with Mille Lacs County over our very existence. Instead, we invite the county — and all of our local governments — to come along side us and join with us in the fight for a better future for all of our communities for generations to come.”

The Friday ruling does not fully resolve the case, as issues related to the law enforcement dispute itself remain undecided.

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