St. Louis County Board won’t sell land to indians
Wednesday, March 11 2009
Written by Aimee Loiselle and Catherine Whipple,
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Tensions have risen in northern Minnesota between the St. Louis County Commissioners and the Bois Forte and Fond du Lac Ojibwe bands. County officials

say they are concerned about loss of taxable land, while some band members accuse the commissioners of racism and bias.

It all started in January when St. Louis County Board Chairman Dennis Fink challenged the Fond du Lac Ojibwe band’s effort to place a 33-acre parcel of land into federal trust, placing it in tax-exempt status. A majority of the Board agreed with Fink’s objection to the land sale and also removed other tax-exempt lands from sale.

The board says at issue is its desire to collect property taxes on land the tribes purchase from the county. Three commissioners expressed concerns about tribes not paying enough taxes yet receiving services. Tribal leaders were not invited to the meeting.

When individuals or companies cease paying taxes, the county takes ownership. It keeps some land for recreation and forestry, leases some to outside organizations, and sells the remainder.

Fink said his concern “is how much land has been transferred from private to public.” He said the county is land rich but tax-base poor and has to investigate every piece of property that might become tax-exempt, whether it’s going to the Department of Natural Resources, Nature Conservancy, or tribes.

“Let’s figure out what’s going on before we allow any more transactions,” Fink said. He supports a hold on all land activities with the tribes until the county determines what land should be tax-exempt, what land has back taxes, and what land uses will be.

Minnesota Statute 282 states that tribal governments have the right of first refusal on the purchase of tax-forfeited land in the reservations. Fond du Lac and Bois Forte Bands have purchased such land from St. Louis County and applied to the U.S. government to have parcels transferred into federal trust, which confers tax-exempt status and protection from encroachment.

In opposition to the St. Louis County Board’s decision, about 120 people attended a February 12 rally at the County Courthouse. Ricky Defoe, representing a Duluth American Indian Commission, said, “The fear of revenue loss to the county, just a few thousand dollars, is short-sighted. Stereotyping us as a group as somehow being a burden on the county, while maintaining silent about our contribution, is offensive and disrespectful.”

We Are Watching, a citizen group advocating accountability, the Native American community and other concerned citizens began a campaign to alert people about the Board’s decision and comments made during the meeting. We Are Watching recorded the discussion and posted it on the internet.

The recording captures, among others, comments by Commissioner Peg Sweeney, whose district includes the northern half of the Fond du Lac reservation. Sweeney said, “I support a return of the land to them if they’re going to be autonomous [and] if they’re going to provide totally their own police protection.”

“Even though they have their own, quote, police protection on the reservation, if anything happens ... they call 911,” Sweeney said. “We have to prosecute them. We have to jail them. We have to provide them with public defenders. We have to do all those things [but] while we’re providing all these services, there are [only] a small number of people who are paying for those services in that area [through property taxes]. In other words, the rest of the county is paying for the services … in a disproportionate amount.”

Emily Johnson, one of the people fighting the Board’s decision, said. “I was surprised to hear elected officials make such ignorant statements in public. If they didn’t have the financial and legal information, they should have said they needed to talk to the bands and do research.”

Not all the Board members agree with Fink and Sweeney though. Commis-sioner Steve O’Neil said the board listened to the Feb. 17 rally and wants to meet with tribal leaders before moving forward. “I’ve been supportive of that approach from the beginning.”

O’Neil also said the board should work with both bands to make land available, as well as on social services and public works. He said, “Fond du Lac acquiring land is good for the county, and the tribe has put it to good use.”

The Native community and its supporters say the board ignored crucial data: the tribes are major employers in the county; tribal governments provide services like clinics and law enforcement; most Native people live off the reservations and pay property taxes, and most Native people on the reservations also pay taxes; and tribes finance road repair and make donations, like a recent gift of $50,000 to the County Sheriff.

When asked about tribal contributions, Fink said it would be inappropriate to comment on contributions the tribes make to the county because he didn’t have information on employment, payroll taxes, services, or donations.

The Native community and supporters say they are concerned by the Board’s stereotyping of Indians as criminals or wanting “free” services; assumptions about the county “giving up” land but gaining nothing; references to Indians as a homogenous group or as “them”; and comments that only a small percentage of Indians pay taxes.

They also say the tribes are usually re-purchasing land they were originally granted in 1854 but then lost in unscrupulous exchanges and deceitful deals. “The county should really be giving the land back to the tribes,” Johnson said.

Asked about treaties and legal agreements, Fink said the Board follows all current statutes. “I’m not looking at yesterday, I’m looking at tomorrow,” he said. “It’s not all that special… The government has never been good at maintaining agreements with anyone. That’s a general statement. Laws and contracts are always in flux.”

Those opposed to the Board’s decision have made three requests to the board: 1) to retract its hold on land activities with the tribes; 2) to make an ongoing effort to consult tribal governments on relevant topics; and 3) to seek education about legal, economic, and historic issues related to both bands.

To hear the recording of the Commisioner’s workshop, go to: .

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