State transportation officials are posting 12 highway signs in northeastern Minnesota to mark the boundaries of a treaty signed in 1854 by the U.S. government and three Ojibwe bands: the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation installed the first sign on Nov. 1 on southbound Highway 61, just south of the Canadian border and near the entrance to Grand Portage State Park.
“It is something that was long overdue,” said Grand Portage Chairman Robert Deschampe. “When people enter the 1854 Treaty area, they will know where they are and, hopefully, educate themselves about treaties.”
Former Grand Portage Chairman Norman Deschampe first asked for signs recognizing the treaty boundaries 11 years ago, said Levi Brown, director of tribal affairs for MnDOT. The Bois Forte and Fond du Lac bands followed with their own formal requests.
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Brown, who’s a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, acknowledged it’s been a long journey to get to this point. He said it's important for the state to recognize and honor tribal sovereignty and rights of the Anishinaabe tribal nations in the ceded territory.
"We're acknowledging the fact that as the state of Minnesota, we see the tribal nations, we see the treaties and are honoring those treaties. And that is a huge step,” he said.
The Bois Forte, Grand Portage and Fond du Lac Ojibwe bands ceded 5.5 million acres of land in northeastern Minnesota to the U.S. government in 1854.
In exchange, through the treaty, the tribes were given small cash payments and guaranteed the right to continue to hunt, fish and gather on that ceded territory.
But for decades, those rights were not recognized by the state government. In the 1980s, the tribes sued to assert those rights, after a Grand Portage hunter inadvertently shot a moose outside the reservation boundaries.
The state reached a settlement with the Bois Forte and Grand Portage bands, and decades later, reached a separate agreement with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
Given that long history, Brown said this gesture by MnDOT means much more than simply putting up a few signs. He said it was one of the proudest moments of his career.
"This is a huge deal because it shows that state government and tribal nations can come together — that it doesn't always have to be divisive. We don't have to be adversaries,” he said.
The additional 11 signs will be placed along other highways, including Interstate 35 near Sturgeon Lake, over the next several weeks.