New road signs mark Mille Lacs Reservation’s 1855 borders

Sign marks borders of the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation.
A newly posted sign along southbound Minnesota Highway 169 marks the borders of the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation as established in an 1855 treaty. Mille Lacs County disputes that the original reservation, encompassing about 61,000 acres, still exists.
Courtesy of Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe

New highway signs now mark the borders of the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation, despite an ongoing legal dispute over those boundaries.

Last week, the Minnesota Department of Transportation began posting the first of six signs along state highways 169, 27 and 47 in east-central Minnesota. 

The signs mark the edges of the reservation as established by an 1855 treaty, covering about 61,000 acres along the southern shore of Mille Lacs Lake. The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe contends that reservation still exists, and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has backed that position in legal filings — a reversal of previous state policy.

But Mille Lacs County officials believe the band has only about 4,000 acres, held in trust by the federal government. They believe the original reservation was dissolved by subsequent treaties and court actions.

The two sides are embroiled in a federal lawsuit seeking to resolve the issue. A court ruling could be issued later this year.

The band said in a Facebook post that the signs will not affect the pending lawsuit, but are "an important reminder of the establishment of our reservation.”

“Our ancestors withstood a decades-long campaign by powerful timber companies, non-Indian settlers, and federal, state and county officials to force them from the Reservation, which included acts of violence and the burning of the Band’s homes and villages,” the post said. “They remained here against all odds.”

The Band said it appreciates the state’s public recognition of the 1855 boundaries, given “the modern-day efforts of Mille Lacs County to erase all memory of our Reservation.”

For its part, Mille Lacs County said that it’s been “settled law” for more than 100 years that the reservation was disestablished. It said the issue will be decided by the federal courts, not MnDOT's placement of the signs.

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