Federal judge rules Mille Lacs County illegally restricted tribe's policing powers on reservation

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. Mille Lacs County disputes that the original reservation, encompassing about 61,000 acres, still exists.
Courtesy of Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe

A federal judge has largely sided with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in its lawsuit claiming Mille Lacs County improperly limited its policing authority.

The ruling is the latest victory for the Mille Lacs Band in its ongoing dispute with the county over the boundaries of its central Minnesota reservation, and what powers the tribe has within those boundaries.

“We got nearly everything we asked for from the court,” said Caleb Dogeagle, solicitor general for the Mille Lacs Band. “The county cannot interfere with the Mille Lacs tribal police department's ability to protect our communities, which is great on the ground, and what we believed to be the case all along.”

Attorneys for the county said the court order frees the way to appeal an earlier ruling in the case, affirming that the band's original 61,000 acre reservation — as established by an 1855 treaty — still exists.

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The county maintains that subsequent treaties dissolved that reservation, and the tribe only has about 4,000 acres held in trust by the federal government.

“We believe there are grounds for a strong and successful appeal,” the county’s attorneys stated.

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe sued the county in 2017 after the county terminated its cooperative law enforcement agreement with the band, ending 25 years of cooperation between the two sides. 

County Attorney Joe Walsh issued an opinion that without a cooperative agreement, tribal police officers did not have authority to act as peace officers to issue citations, investigate crimes or apply for search warrants. 

Federal lawsuit

The Mille Lacs Band filed a federal lawsuit against the county, asking the court to declare that tribal officers can investigate violations of federal, state and tribal law on the Mille Lacs reservation and prohibit the county from interfering. The suit also named Walsh and then-Sheriff Don Lorge.

Tribal leaders said the disagreement had resulted in an increase in crime and opioid abuse, with gangs and drug dealers viewing the reservation as a police-free zone.

In 2018, the two sides signed a new cooperative law enforcement agreement, but the overall lawsuit remained unresolved.

In her Jan. 10 ruling, Senior U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson wrote the county “improperly limited the Band’s inherent law enforcement authority” to the land held in trust, when its territory includes all land within the reservation.

The county also acted unlawfully in prohibiting tribal officers from investigating violations of state law, even on trust lands, she wrote. 

Her ruling cites a 2021 Supreme Court decision, U.S. v. Cooley, which held that a tribal police officer has the authority to temporarily detain and search a non-Native American traveling on a public right-of-way running through a reservation for potential violations of state or federal law.

Dogeagle said the case centers on the tribe’s sovereignty and law enforcement authority, and its ability to protect its communities.

“It’s not just Natives that live within the reservation boundary. There’s a lot of non-Indians that live there,” he said. “We want to protect all of our communities there, not just the trust lands where the county had tried to limit the law enforcement authority.”

County evaluating the ruling

Attorneys for the county say they're still evaluating how the ruling impacts tribal authority over non-Native Americans within the reservation. Dogeagle said the ruling won’t change much for them.

“There’s not any additional risk or anything to fear from the Mille Lacs Band or our tribal police department,” he said. “We're here to protect everybody, regardless of their status as a band member or a non-band member.”

Angelique EagleWoman, director of the Native American Law and Sovereignty Institute at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, said the case speaks to the need for more education on Native American law in Minnesota.

“That's something that I frequently see as an expert and educator in this area is that many times, people weren't able to take a class in law school,” she said. “And now, it is showing when we have these kinds of inner-jurisdictional issues arise.”

EagleWoman said Nelson’s ruling makes clear that within reservation boundaries, tribes have authority to detain suspects and do an initial investigation of whether someone has committed a state or federal crime.

The Mille Lacs Band isn't asserting they would do anything more than what was outlined in the Cooley decision, she said.

“What we don't want is we don't want non-Indians to feel emboldened to seek places on Indian reservations where they can commit illegal activity, and thumb their noses at tribal law enforcement,” EagleWoman said. “It's a community issue that we're dealing with, and it requires all law enforcement to col"aborate.”

The band didn’t get everything it was seeking in the lawsuit. Nelson did dismiss Lorge and Walsh as individual defendants from the case. 

She also denied the band’s request for a permanent injunction that would prevent the county from interfering with the band’s law enforcement authority in the future. However, the band could return to court and seek relief if it believes there’s another dispute.