Joe Fellegy

A big Mille Lacs topic these days is the new signage for the “Mille Lacs Indian Reservation” on Highways 47, 169, and other roads. The new signs mark the boundaries of the long-off-most-maps original 61,000-acre Mille Lacs Reservation, which is about 15 times larger than the “reservation” long recognized by tribal enrollees, by non-Indian Minnesotans, and by local and state government leaders and agencies.

Northbound travelers on Hwy. 169 might wonder “what’s going on” when they see the new sign near Onamia, given the many years of “reservation” signage above the Rum River outlet in the Vineland area. This change is a biggie, raising many legitimate questions.  

Some related points:

An Indian reservation, like tribal trust lands, is legal “Indian country,” with lots of ever-evolving law attached. Mille Lacs County government officials recognized the significance of this issue via their recent letter to Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, asking them to clearly explain their position and to answer citizen concerns.

Last year, Walz and Ellison announced that they have embraced the larger Mille Lacs Indian Reservation. So, like many others, I expected the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to eventually change the signs, which they did in early January.

Know that state officials, no matter what their branch of government, cannot create or resurrect an Indian reservation. But they can play politics. Will they defend state and citizen interests when they’re challenged? Or will they bow to politics, support the political and legal agendas of modern tribal governments, and sidestep big issues impacting local, county and state governments, plus the interests of tribal and non-tribal citizens?

Every two years, MnDOT prints a new Official Minnesota State Highway Map. Except for a brief and controversial period in 2007-08, those official maps have long portrayed “Mille Lacs Indian Reservation” as the several thousand acres of trust land in the Vineland and Grand Casino area. While that trust land is technically not a reservation, it is legal Indian country like an Indian reservation. And for many decades, Mille Lacs locals — tribal enrollees and non-Indians — informally called it “the Rez.”  

The latest Official Minnesota State Highway Map, the 2019-2020 version, does not show the larger “reservation” as indicated by the new signs. But the Minnesota map at MnDOT’s website now shades the northern Mille Lacs County areas of Isle Harbor, South Harbor and Kathio townships as Indian reservation. For many generations, most residents of northern Mille Lacs County — including Isle, Cove, Wahkon, Onamia, and nearby rural areas — never believed they lived within an Indian reservation. Naturally, many now have legitimate concerns.

Many have questions on what would change should the courts rule in favor of the Mille Lacs Band. There are many questions on natural resource management, environmental law, property values, law enforcement authority, and more. And the question of “which reservation” is very important.

Politicians, academics and others insist that officeholders and policymakers be accountable and transparent. But those demands are often selective, exempting certain officials and groups. Is there a principle in politics, government, academics, and journalism that exempts powerful modern tribal governments from accountability and transparency? No.

Many federal and state dollars go to tribal governments. Who works with whom, where, and regarding what are questions the public deserves answers to.  

One bottom line: MnDOT’s new reservation signs, the “which reservation” question, possible future impacts, and the dealings between state and federal officials with modern tribal governments are big stuff. Tribal enrollees and non-Indians deserve to know what is going on.

Guest columnist Joe Fellegy studies history of the Mille Lacs Lake area.

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