Judge affirms that 61,000-acre Mille Lacs Reservation still exists. What does that mean?

Sign marks borders of the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation.
A sign along southbound Minnesota Highway 169 marks the borders of the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation as established in an 1855 treaty. A federal judge recently ruled that the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe's original reservation borders outlined in the treaty remain intact. Courtesy of Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
Courtesy of Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe

A federal judge handed the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe a major victory last week in a legal dispute over its reservation boundaries. The ruling determined that the band's original reservation boundaries — created by a treaty more than 160 years ago — remain intact. 

The band has been in a legal dispute with Mille Lacs County, which has argued that the reservation no longer exists.

Here’s a closer look at the decision, and what it means for residents living within the reservation.

The Mille Lacs Reservation was created by an 1855 treaty. How big is the reservation outline based on that treaty?

It encompasses about 61,000 acres along the south side of Mille Lacs Lake. That includes three small cities and a few townships, where many nontribal members live.

Reservations are areas that were set aside for Native American tribes to live on, as white settlers were moving onto their lands. Most were created by federal treaty or executive order. 

There are more than 300 federal Native American reservations in the United States, including 11 in Minnesota.

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Tribes have sovereignty on their reservations, but they don't own all of the land inside the boundaries. Many reservations — including Mille Lacs — have nontribal members living on them.

The band has long maintained that its original reservation still exists, as it was established by that 1855 treaty. But Mille Lacs County officials believe the original reservation was dissolved by later treaties and congressional actions.

They recognize the band's territory as only a few thousand scattered acres held in trust by the federal government.

About five years ago, the Mille Lacs Band sued the county due to a disagreement over policing. And as part of that case, the county claimed that the original reservation no longer exists.

So although the underlying lawsuit still needs to be decided, tribal leaders see the judge's opinion on the reservation boundaries as a big win. Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin called it a "historic milestone."

“It is our sincere hope that this decision will allow us to move beyond the need to fight with Mille Lacs County over our very existence,” she said.

What does the judge’s opinion say?

In a 93-page ruling filed last week, Judge Susan Richard Nelson wrote an extensive review of more than 160 years of the Mille Lacs Band's history, including treaties and federal actions.

She wrote that there were attempts by the government to get the Mille Lacs people to move, and pressure from white settlers. 

But Nelson wrote: “Over the course of more than 160 years, Congress has never clearly expressed an intention to disestablish or diminish the Mille Lacs Reservation."

So the reservation boundaries remain as they were in 1855, she wrote.

Her opinion is consistent with the position taken by the U.S. Department of Interior during the Obama administration.

Two years ago, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison also weighed in, backing the Mille Lacs Band's stance in a court filing. That was a reversal of more than a century of state policy.

How are Mille Lacs County officials reacting?

The county issued a news release calling the ruling “disappointing.” It said they expect to appeal the decision, possibly all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

It said county officials are evaluating the impact of the decision on the thousands of nontribal residents and businesses within the 61,000 acres. 

“This will be a significant change for the many residents and businesses in the area that have, for over a century, been living with the shared understanding that their land was not on an Indian reservation,” the news release read.

Randy Thompson, an attorney for Mille Lacs County in the case, said the ruling doesn't affect ownership of land by nontribal members. But it does change jurisdiction over those lands — expanding federal and tribal jurisdiction, and somewhat limiting state and local control, he said.

Thompson said he expects the county to appeal. 

What does this ruling mean for residents living within the reservation boundaries?

Their lives won't be much different, said Tadd Johnson, a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and a consulting attorney for the Mille Lacs Band.

For tribal members who live and work on the reservation, there is one big benefit — they don't have to pay state income tax, Johnson said.

But for people who aren't band members, there will be basically no change, he said. That's because over the years, the Supreme Court has limited the authority tribes have over nontribal members living on reservations.

So the tribe can't tax nontribal members or their land, Johnson said. It can't prosecute nontribal members in tribal court. It can't zone or regulate the use of reservation land owned by nontribal members.

"There's nothing to fear on reservations,” Johnson said. “The fear that's being generated is being generated by the county."

What about fishing?

Mille Lacs Lake is a popular destination for walleye anglers, so some people have wondered whether this decision will affect fishing access to the lake.

Johnson says it won’t. The band and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources already co-manage the lake, and the existence of the reservation doesn't change that — or limit access to the lake for nonband members, he said.