Return of 28,000 acres to Minnesota tribe is likely largest land-back deal ever

A map shows areas of the Bois Forte reservation returned to the tribe.
A map shows areas of the Bois Forte reservation returned to the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa in June 2022.
Courtesy of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation
Updated: 6 p.m. June 9 | Published: 7:20 p.m. June 8

The Bois Forte Band of Chippewa has restored more than 28,000 acres of land to tribal ownership through an agreement with the nonprofit Conservation Fund.

The Bois Forte Band of Chippewa is a federally recognized tribe located in northeastern Minnesota.

In 2020, the nonprofit Conservation Fund bought the land as part of a larger purchase from PotlatchDeltic with the intent of returning it to the 3,600-member Ojibwe band.

During a recent news conference, Bois Forte Chairperson Cathy Chavers said the land-back agreement is the largest of its kind and is unique in that it did not require federal legislation.

The agreement restores just over 20 percent of the reservation’s land base to the tribe. The restored land is made up of parcels spread out over different parts of the reservation.

Bois Forte lost the land over a century ago after the federal government allotted individual parcels to its band members and the Interior department sold off remaining portions as allowed under the 1887 General Allotment Act.

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Conserving and stewarding forested land

Chavers said she sees the agreement as an opportunity to return the land to the community’s traditional economic uses.

“It's going to be used for hunting, fishing, gathering and when I say gathering, you know, the berries and our traditional medicines,” Chavers said.

Part of the agreement involved the Bois Forte band managing the lands through the Minnesota Sustainable Forest Incentive Act, a state program to conserve forested land.

In 2016, before the Conservation Fund acquired the land, the PotlatchDeltic lumber company had entered it into the Sustainable Forest Incentive program. The program makes direct incentive payments to property owners to conserve forested land. Under the program's requirements, PotlatchDeltic agreed not to develop the land.

As a part of the transfer agreement with the Conservation Fund, the Band will manage the land through the Sustainable Forest Incentive Act. As a part of the agreement that made the land transfer possible, the Bois Forte band will keep the land in the program for fifty years.

Chavers said the payments from the Sustainable Forest Incentive Act will help to pay back the loan and possibly generate income for the tribe. 

“We can make money off our trees without even touching them,” said Chavers.

Chavers sees the band’s participation in the program as a new way to continue the band’s stewardship of their land and water.  

"We were put on this Earth to take care of Mother Earth and our creator gave us our rice, our water, our land, our trees, the air, the skies. Everything is living. And so we're to be the caretakers of that.”

A unique agreement

The purchase of the land is part of a larger movement across the nation to restore reservation land bases and tribal homelands. The Indian Land Tenure Foundation, based in the Twin Cities, joined the project to assist the Bois Forte band with purchase of the land.

The Bois Forte band borrowed the money to purchase the land from the Indian Land Capital Company, a subsidiary of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation.

Cris Stainbrook, president of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, said the large number of forested acres enrolled in the state’s Sustainable Forest Incentive program makes management of the land affordable.

He also said it will help the band steward the forested lands across the reservation.

“The thing the tribe or the Band really gets out of this is the ability to, A, have their land back, but B, be able to manage the forest on a more landscape basis,” Stainbrook said.

Land ownership was like a checkerboard, and now the tribe will get to manage larger swaths of it.

In addition to a loan, the Indian Land Tenure Foundation plans to work with the Bois Forte band as a part of the National Indian Carbon Coalition.

“All the pieces came together at the right time,” Stainbrook said. “Holy grail of projects I didn’t know I’d ever see, and at this scale. Personally, it’s gratifying for me to see.”