Updated: 2 p.m.
University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel is recommending the return of a forestry research center near Cloquet — land that the university has held for more than a century — to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
The 3,400-acre Cloquet Forestry Center, located about three miles west of Cloquet and entirely within the boundaries of the Fond du Lac reservation, is one of 10 research and outreach centers in the state, and has served as the primary research and education forest for the University of Minnesota since 1909.
The land was originally reserved for the Band in the La Pointe Treaty of 1854. But a pair of federal laws in the 1880s permitted the U.S. government to transfer “unallotted” Fond du Lac lands to lumber companies for extensive logging, after which it was given to the university.
Now, after a series of discussions with the Fond du Lac Band that began in 2019, Gabel told a Board of Regents committee Thursday “this is the right time to talk about repatriation of this land, returning it to Fond du Lac, and what that would mean going forward.”
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Gabel said there are still many complicated issues to resolve before a decision is finalized. For example, some of the land is owned by the state of Minnesota, so the university is consulting with state agencies to “navigate the legal processes necessary to return this land.”
The university is also continuing talks with the Fond du Lac Band, Gabel said.
One discussion point has been what will happen to the ongoing research conducted at the center, which includes long-term studies on forest management, wildlife, and climate change impacts on forest ecosystems.
The forestry center also provides education and outreach to natural resource managers and undergraduate students.
In docket materials provided to the Board of Regents, university administration said they will seek alternative locations for research and outreach.
But, “in order to ease this transition, the University will ask the Fond du Lac Band to consider entering into a memorandum of understanding or similar agreement with the University to facilitate some of the University’s ongoing research at the CFC for a period of time, if the Fond du Lac Band agrees that such research is consistent with the Fond du Lac Band’s mission.”
“We very much appreciate Fond du Lac’s openness to potential agreements that would allow university research, education and outreach to continue on the land in some form in close partnership and collaboration,” Gabel told the Board of Regents on Thursday.
In a statement, the Fond du Lac Band said the forestry center land “was taken from the Band and return of the land will help to restore the Band’s homeland.”
The Band added that details about “the University’s ongoing role, research management, public access and many other issues are under discussion and will need to be addressed.”
The university has worked to build a more collaborative relationship with the 11 tribal nations in Minnesota over the past few years — a commitment, Gabel told the Board, to explore “our complicated history.”
Those efforts were inspired in part by the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, which in 2020 called on the U to take swift action to address racism, improve the school’s relationship with tribes, and take steps to remedy past injustices and exploitation, including the taking of Native land.
The university is now broadly reviewing its treatment of Native people going back to its founding in 1851. Researchers with the TRUTH (Towards Recognition and University-Tribal Healing) Project are expected to release a report later this year.
“I think this is a good direction to go in,” Regent Tadd Johnson told fellow board members Thursday, regarding the effort to move forward with the process to return the Cloquet Forestry Center to the Fond du Lac Band.
Johnson, a member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and the first Native American appointed to the Board of Regents, said the federal government turned over two-thirds of the land on six of the state’s seven Ojibwe reservations in the late 1800s, mainly to timber companies.
Gabel said it’s premature to speculate on the timing of the transfer, given the work that still needs to occur to finalize it. But she called it a “historic moment.”
“It represents a deep and meaningful step in our commitment through the strategic plan to building strong relationships with all our tribal nations and indigenous communities and partners,” Gabel said.