Arthur “Archie” LaRose is the chairman of Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.
This year, Congress held two hearings on legislative proposals to distribute a 1999 federal court settlement of $20 million approved for damages inflicted by the Nelson Act on six Indian reservations in Minnesota between the years of 1889 and 1934.
At both hearings, members of Congress stated “the time has come to get this done.” I find it interesting that Congress is impatient when it comes to spending someone else’s money but fails to lift a finger to return the 600,000 acres of Leech Lake homelands that were taken. Many in Congress talk about the protection of property rights, but some of those same members are now ignoring the property rights of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe by supporting this proposed legislation.
The Nelson Act stripped approximately 600,000 acres of timber and lands from the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, much of it taken directly from the U.S. to form the Chippewa National Forest. Our reservation, protected and promised to be our permanent homelands under treaty with the U.S., was cut to less than 40,000 acres by the Nelson Act.
The distribution bills before Congress would completely ignore this 100-year-old unjust taking, and instead would blindly distribute the settlement funds to other bands. If enacted, this would be the only federal court settlement that is distributed solely based on politics, without any consideration of the legal equities of the underlying case. Several members of the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs whether it considered the proposed distribution fair or legal.
The BIA had no response. The BIA was then asked what if a group of tribes in an intertribal dispute brought the Interior Secretary a proposal to take away the treaty and property rights of a minority tribe, would you support that? The BIA responded that it had no good answer to that question. This non-response sets up the possibility for a dangerous precedent for all of Indian Country. In 2001, the BIA studied the case, and initially made a determination based on the legal equities of the case below, concluding that damages and population should play a role in the distribution. However, over the past month, the BIA has reversed course and now supports the bills that would specially treat the bands that suffered as little as less than one percent of the damages the same as the Leech Lake Band, which suffered 68.9 percent of the damages.
The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe itself commissioned the appraisal of damages to support the court settlement, and does not dispute these numbers. The BIA’s trust responsibility obliges it to defend our treaty rights. Instead, the BIA’s decision to support the MCT political decision to distribute funds to other bands rightly owed to Leech Lake further violates our treaty rights. The BIA did nothing to meet its treaty or trust responsibility between 1889 and 1934 when our timber and lands were taken. The BIA’s support of the proposed distribution plan exacerbates this failure and the harm done to our people and violates the Indian Tribal Judgment Funds Use or Distribution Act.
The fact that Congress is supporting a political decision made by the MCT also makes no sense and ignores its own precedent. Our reservation was established long before the MCT was even formed. Likewise, the Nelson Act and the damages that it inflicted occurred long before the MCT existed. Federal courts have also ruled that the MCT acts only in a representative capacity. The MCT is not a beneficiary. They have no treaties. The bill violates Congress’ constitutional obligation to protect our property and treaty rights. It disrespects Leech Lake’s sovereignty.
It compounds the injustice done to our Treaties, our lands, and our people. Leech Lake agrees that time has come to resolve this issue but Congress should not be so eager to spend the compensation that is due to Leech Lake. The need for a resolution cannot trump the need for justice.