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Chippewa bands can't agree how to split multi-million dollar settlement

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Aerial view of Chippewa National Forest
Land and timber deals with the U.S. government in the late 19th and early 20th centuries meant huge losses for the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe's six Ojibwe bands. Much of the Chippewa National Forest, pictured here, once belonged to the Leech Lake Band. The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe successfully sued the federal government more than 10 years ago. But the tribe still hasn't agreed on how to split the $20 million settlement.
Courtesy U.S. Forest Service

The issue dates back to 1889 when the federal government passed the Nelson Act. That piece of legislation split up thousands of acres of tribal land into allotments for individual Indians. 

That hurt the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe -- which includes bands at White Earth, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs, Boise Forte, Fond du Lac and Grand Portage.  

The federal government took ownership of thousands of acres of Indian land and much of it ended up in the hands of non-Indians. Proceeds from land and timber sales were intended to benefit the Chippewa, but the federal government sold the land for less than it was worth and misspent some of the funds.

Erma Vizenor
White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor says White Earth, the largest band by population in Minnesota, deserve more than a one-sixth cut of the $20 million settlement. Vizenor argues the settlement split should be based on population.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

On the White Earth Reservation, the result was the loss of some of the band's best stands of valuable white pine timber. 

Chairwoman Erma Vizenor says it was devastating to the reservation.

"White Earth lost all but 800 and some acres of land out of over 850,000 acres of original land on the reservation," said Vizenor. "Our land here was swindled, or stolen... or taken away illegally."

In 1999, after the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe won its lawsuit against the federal government, the tribe's executive committee voted to split the $20 million settlement six ways, so that each of the six bands would get the same share.

Leaders at White Earth later changed their minds. Vizenor argues that since it's the largest Band in Minnesota by population, White Earth should get a larger share of the settlement. 

"It's not helpful for us to be divided by money. That's not our normal inclination from 100 years ago."

White Earth's plan would provide equal payments to every member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. The plan has the backing of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"To do any less than a per capita distribution would be a second injustice to White Earth," said Vizenor. "We are 52 percent of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, and we only have two votes on the tribal executive committee, with the other five tribes with two votes each, as well. That in itself is not one person, one vote representation."

The four smallest bands of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe disagree. According to attorney Mark Anderson, who's general counsel for the tribe, the lawsuit was a group effort and each band paid the same amount to prosecute the claims.

"The basis for that belief is that the tribe settled the Nelson Act claims based on the notion that each of the bands would participate equally in the burden as well as in the reward," Anderson said.

A plan to distribute the unpaid funds, which have now grown to about $27 million with interest,  must be approved by Congress. But the disagreement within the tribe has also divided lawmakers. Seventh District Cong. Collin Peterson,(D-Minn.), sides with White Earth. 

Fellow Cong. Jim Oberstar, (D-Minn.), who represents the 8th District, supports the six-way split voted on by the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. 

Frank Bebeau
Frank Bebeau is tribal attorney for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibway. Bibeau says 69 percent of the resources that were lost by the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe came from the Leech Lake Reservation. Officals there say their portion of the settlement money should reflect that loss.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Oberstar argues that upholding the MCT vote is necessary to recognize the tribe's sovereignty. He says doing anything else would set a bad precedent. 

Both lawmakers have offered opposing bills, and Peterson says the dispute makes it unlikely that Congress will take action any time soon.

"If you have two senior members like us on opposite sides, the reaction around here is to do nothing, you know?" said Peterson. "So unless this gets worked out somehow or another, I think we're just going to be in limbo here."

If things aren't complicated enough, there's a third plan to split the settlement.  Leech Lake's tribal attorney Frank Bebeau says the land deals with the federal government took more land from Leech Lake than any other band.

"Obviously, Leech Lake deserves more," said Bebeau.

Bibeau says experts long ago determined that 69 percent of the resources that were lost came from the Leech Lake Reservation. The loss includes portions of the Chippewa National Forest, which once belonged to Leech Lake. 

Leaders at Leech Lake believe it's only fair they should get 69 percent of the settlement. Under their plan, White Earth, the most populous band, would get just nine percent. 

Bibeau says the deep divisions within the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe could go on for years.

"It's not helpful for us to be divided by money. That's not our normal inclination from 100 years ago," said Bibeau. "I would like to think there's a remedy, and my believe has always been the same.  Reasonable people, equally informed, seldom disagree. But, you know, you're talking about $27 million."

Tribal leaders say there have been behind-the-scenes talks about a compromise, but there's no agreement so far. The issue will likely come up when the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe's executive committee meets next month.