When Bradley Harrington was an 11-year-old growing up on the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation, members of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe were in court, arguing that a treaty their ancestors made with the U.S. government gave them the right to harvest fish on Mille Lacs Lake.
It was 1992. At his school in Onamia, he said, tensions were high.
"We were fighting all the time,” Harrington said. “And stuff was being said to me, like, how they want to spear me or wrap me in a net and throw me in the lake."
That was Harrington's first taste of the discord that still lingers in the Mille Lacs region, one of the state’s best-known fishing destinations.
Seven years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Mille Lacs Band retains the right to hunt, fish and gather on the lands it ceded to the federal government. But disagreement over the band’s legal rights continues.
"I have two boys that are going to that same school, and things are a little bit different,” he said. “But … we’re still fighting about fish."
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Harrington, who serves as the state tribal liaison for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, is running for a seat on the Mille Lacs County Board of Commissioners, a local government body he says sets the temperature for the community. He said he hopes to set a new, less divisive tone.
"It's pretty small here, and our community is divided,” Harrington said. “We have a really hard time talking to each other."
Harrington is challenging Dave Oslin, a retired business owner who has represented District 5 for eight years and is seeking a third term.
The latest dispute between the band and the county is now winding its way through federal court. In 2017, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe sued the county over policing concerns. The band asserts that its reservation includes 61,000 acres along the southern shore of Mille Lacs Lake, as established in an 1855 treaty. The border encompasses several small towns and three islands on the lake.
But Oslin and other county officials believe that subsequent treaties and court actions dissolved those reservation boundaries. They believe the band has only about 4,000 acres, held in trust by the federal government.
Oslin said he’s glad that the courts will finally settle the long-disputed question.
“I represent both tribal members and non tribal members, and everyone should be excited that we're finally going to get a court decision on this,” he said. “I can't imagine why anybody would not want this thing settled."
Law enforcement at issue
The current dispute began four years ago, when Mille Lacs County officials ended a cooperative law enforcement agreement with the band.
When tribal police lost the authority to investigate crimes, Harrington said, crime rose as drug dealers targeted the reservation. It hit close to home. He said he had to bury people with whom he’d grown up, who died of overdoses.
Since then, the county and the band have reached an agreement on policing, but the underlying question of the reservation's boundaries remains unsettled. For Harrington, the two issues are very much connected.
“The action of the county hurt my community,” he said. “People died. People are still sick.”
Oslin said he thinks law enforcement in the county actually is working well. He said the county and the band routinely collaborate on a range of issues, from public health to housing. Any contention that remains is related to the unanswered question of the reservation boundaries, Oslin said.
"That's not what I call real contention,” he said. “That's just simply a legal question that needs to be answered, and we're heading towards that answer right now, in the federal courts."
Earlier this year, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison asserted in a legal filing that the 61,000-acre Mille Lacs Indian Reservation still exists, reversing a position taken by previous governors.
Oslin and other county officials have voiced concerns that a court decision supporting that opinion could have an impact on nontribal members living in those areas.
“Changing the reservation’s status changes the relationship of Mille Lacs’ citizens and their land with the state and the federal government,” Randy Thompson, an attorney who represents the county in the lawsuit, wrote in a newsletter for county residents in July.
Harrington said he believes the county is stirring fear among its residents who aren’t band members, suggesting that they could be under tribal authority instead of the county.
“There's undertones in there that my people have been able to pick up on for quite some time,” he said.
But Colette Routel, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law’s Native American Law and Sovereignty Institute, said recent Supreme Court rulings have limited the ability of tribes to exercise jurisdiction over nonmembers.
“If a reservation exists under a current case law, it primarily impacts tribal members,” Routel said.
Harrington’s route to becoming a candidate for public office was unconventional. A decade ago, he was serving a five-year prison sentence for driving under the influence when he had what he calls a moment of clarity.
It drove him to start reading about Ojibwe history and language, and federal Indian law. After prison, he connected with elders in his community and learned to perform tribal ceremonies.
"I knew if I continued on seeking out knowledge, seeking out the language, seeking out who I was as an Anishinaabe person, I may lessen the need to return to that [old] lifestyle,” he said.
After taking some college and leadership courses, Harrington was appointed natural resources commissioner for the Mille Lacs Band in 2017.
Earlier this year, Gov. Tim Walz appointed him tribal liaison to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, where he serves as a resource to DNR staff, and coordinates with the governments of the 11 Native American tribes in the state.
Harrington said he knows unseating an incumbent is an uphill battle, but he said he’s been able to share information and connect with people during the campaign.
“What I tell people is that if I'm elected, I'll be a constant voice,” he said. “I'm not there to really push any propaganda of the band. I have my experiences growing up here. I’m a lifelong resident … My people have been here for generations. So that's a lot at stake. And I don't want one side to win, because we’ve all got to live together.”
Beyond the boundary question, both candidates have other issues they hope to focus on if elected. Harrington said he wants to tackle the county’s drug problem and reduce its recidivism rate among people who are charged in drug crimes.
A former volunteer firefighter who served on Mille Lacs County’s search and rescue team, Oslin said public safety is one of his top priorities, including building a new law enforcement center in the northern part of the county.
He said the county has been working to assist local businesses affected by tighter fishing regulations on Mille Lacs Lake in recent years. He also supports a county effort to improve broadband access, which he said has been a big problem in the region.
“We're excited about taking the lead on that, and it's going to be a huge benefit for everyone in the county,” Oslin said.
The outcome of the election will be settled long before that of the legal boundary dispute.
“Unfortunately, it's not going to be a quick resolution,” Routel said.
A decision in the case isn't expected until at least next year, and, she said, it almost certainly will be appealed.