Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe boundary sign

The 1855 Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe boundary sign in Onamia on Hwy. 169.

Last week, the Mille Lacs Messenger reported that the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) had placed signs along state highways in Mille Lacs and southern Crow Wing counties. The signs denote the boundaries of the original 1855 Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and have been placed under the direction of Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. The boundary issue is a reversal of opinion from previous Attorney Generals Lori Swanson and Mike Hatch and all the past governors of Minnesota.  

This issue has been a contentious one in the Mille Lacs community as the 1855 Treaty Reservation, consisting of 61,000 acres encompassing the lower half of Mille Lacs Lake, has been settled by non-Band members since the 1890s when township governments were created and the cities of Isle, Onamia and Wahkon were founded.  

The County asserts the 1855 Reservation has long been dissolved by Article 1 of the 1864 Treaty in which the Band ceded the 1855 Reservation to the United States. Congressional Resolutions in 1893 and 1898 described the area as the “former Mille Lacs Reservation.”

The Band asserts that there was no Congressional intent to dissolve the 1855 Treaty Reservation thus nullifying the agreement. This was backed by the 2015 opinion issued by the U.S. Department of the Interior Solicitor, Hilary C. Tompkins.

There Tompkins stated that “A series of interactions fraught with hidden agendas, arbitrary shifts in policy, utter confusion, and broken commitments” occurred and “On several occasions, the United States was aware of the unauthorized encroachments within the Band’s Reservation, but due to external economic and settlement pressures, the government failed to maintain a consistent and clear position on the status of the Band’s lands, leading to a gradual, ad hoc opening of the reservation to settlement and development without the requisite, clear Congressional intent to change the boundaries of the Band’s Reservation.”

Almost two million dollars of tax-payer money has been spent defending the lawsuit filed against the County by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe to settle the boundary issue.  

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe has stated they simply want to place signs up to mark the boundaries of the original Reservation, but it’s uncertain what the implications would be should the Reservation go back to the hands of the Band. MnDOT recently stated that it “does not anticipate major changes at this time” and looks forward to working collaboratively with Mille Lacs County and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

Since Walz and Ellison have reversed the State’s opinion, permitting has been shifted from local authorities to the federal government and the County’s interest has been ignored by the governor with attention solely given to the Band. It is uncertain what policing would look like if the Reservation status is granted back to the Band.

The office of the Mille Lacs County Administrator released the following statement concerning the Minnesota Department of Transportation placement of highway 1855 Reservation boundary signs:     

“For more than 100 years, it has been settled law – accepted by the County, the State, the Federal government, and even the Band itself – that the Mille Lacs Reservation was disestablished. Now that the Band has sought to re-open that question, it will be decided by the federal courts and not by the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s placement of highway signs.”

The MnDOT Office of Tribal Affairs & Office of Chief Counsel, in a letter titled “Clarification on the Mille Lacs Reservation Boundary,” stated: “The Attorney General has clarified the State of Minnesota’s position on the Mille Lacs Reservation boundary. The Governor agrees with the Attorney General’s analysis. The State’s position on the boundaries of the Mille Lacs Reservation is consistent with the position of the federal government. MnDOT will continue to act in accordance with the directions of the Governor’s Office and Attorney General’s Office and will utilize the same boundary the federal government utilizes for the Mille Lacs Reservation.”

The boundary issue is currently in U.S. District Court and will likely be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in the near future.

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