July 21, 2024

After decades of advocacy, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe will see 18 acres of land returned to them by the state of Minnesota. The move comes after lawmakers approved legislation last month to formally return it state trust lands within the boundaries of the Mille Lacs Band’s reservation.

Minnesota’s return of native land is part of a much broader world land back movement which gained momentum in part because of studies that show Indigenous stewardship leads to more effective ecological outcomes. As biodiversity conservation becomes more critical amid rising global temperatures, indigenous self-determination and traditions of connection to land and water are increasingly recognized as essential climate solutions.

“This is a great opportunity for us as the Mille Lacs Band to preserve that land in a way that is respectful of nature,” said Kelly Applegate, natural resources commissioner for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. He said the land transfer is expected to be completed over the next month. “Whatever we do, it will be in a lens of environmental protection.”

The Mille Lacs’ lands in question are known as state trust lands. These trust lands, established at statehood, are land grants from the federal government created primarily to support education and is found throughout the western United States. On the Mille Lacs Reservation, those 18 acres represent only a fraction of the 2.5 million acres of state trust lands across Minnesotaincluding nearly 344,000 acres within the limits of eight reservations. Trust land typically in Minnesota generate income for education through mining, timber and land sales, and for the 2023-24 school year, trust land generated nearly $49 million for public and charter schools. The trust ended up on Mille Lacs, however, only generated about $45 annually.

Minnesota is one of 15 states that own land within federal Indian reservations that generate revenue for non-native institutions.

“Designate [that land] as a school trust parcel — we had no say in that, it was just a designation put on that land without our original approval,” Applegate said, adding that tribal members never stopped occupying the land in question. He said the group is home to more than 5,000 registered members and never relinquished the title to the country.

The Mille Lacs measure was 1 of several bills considered by the Minnesota legislature this year that sought to return land to Native nations and was authored by Senator Mary Kuneshwho has ancestral ties to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and is the first Native woman to serve in the Minnesota Senate.

A bill to return 3,400 University of Minnesota acres to the Fond du Lac Band failed to pass, but university officials said they are still committed to return the property. State lawmakers also considered proposals to return state land to the Red Lake Nation and return land within White Earth State Forest to White Earth Nation. Both measures died after facing opposition.

The Mille Lacs mate set aside $750,000 in state funds for the state natural resources commissioner to pay project costs such as appraisal expenses, closing costs and legal fees to complete the transfer, but not everyone is happy about the legislation. The Mille Lacs County Board of Commissioners issued a press release condemn the purchase. Mille Lacs County District Administrator Dillon Hayes said the transfer violates the state constitution, specifically a requirement that the state put the land up for public auction.

“Right, wrong or otherwise, we really have a process to follow. We have a constitution in the state of Minnesota,” Hayes said. “The board believes that we must follow that process.”

Hayes said the estimated value of the parcel within the reservation exceeds $1 million due to rising property values, and that public schools are not only missing out on funding from the $750,000 appropriated to purchase the property, but also from the higher price that the ground is. could have fetched at auction.

“Federally recognized Indian tribes, such as the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, possess the financial means to purchase such lands at public sale,” the board wrote in a press release last week. “This legislation unfairly benefits the tribe at the expense of our local schools and taxpayers.”

Applegate said it’s a shame the country isn’t supportive.

“We’re in a new era of restoring land to indigenous people, and people shouldn’t feel threatened by that,” Applegate said. “We are the original caretakers of the entire country, and who better to manage it than the tribal nations?”

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