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An Open Letter to St. Louis County Board
Wednesday, March 11 2009
 
Written by Tadd Johnson, Rebecca St. George, Emily Johnson (and others),
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Dear Commissioners:


At a January 20, 2009 workshop of the County Board, one of the agenda items included addressing "Transfer of Land to Tax Exempt Entities". As it turned out, the discussion was limited to the two Indian tribal governments whose boundaries fall within St. Louis County; the Fond du Lac Band and Bois Forte Bands of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. Tribal representatives were apparently not notified nor present at the meeting.

Others were in attendance, however, and a detailed review of the discussion was made available. As citizens of St. Louis County, we are writing to share with you our general uneasiness about the direction and tone of that discussion. We found the misinformation with regard to tribal governments concerning, but we are especially apprehensive about statements made that reflected stereotypes of American Indian people in St. Louis County.

Partially out of recognition of a miscarriage of justice resulting in the theft and loss of tribal lands within the Fond du Lac Reservation, the State Legislature adopted a law in 1985 dealing with the sale of tax-forfeited property in St. Louis County. The law specifies that if the tax-forfeited lands fall within the reservation boundary of the Fond du Lac Band, the County must provide the tribe with the right of first refusal to purchase the land. The intent behind the law was clear recognition that Fond du Lac needed to expand its land holdings within its boundaries in order to improve government service delivery to tribal members.

Offering Fond du Lac the right of first refusal is a requirement, not an option. These transactions have been taking place regularly for many years and Fond du Lac has always used the lands responsibly to further the governmental purposes of the Band. The Band has built education facilities, health facilities, set aside lands for harvesting resources and hunting, community centers, and housing. All legitimate government services that were critically needed but necessitated land.

Last fall, the County began another routine process of offering for sale certain parcels of tax-forfeited land on the Reservation. Fond du Lac began planning to purchase these lands. Yet the county suddenly decided on January 20 to put the brakes on this transaction. Not only that, but the Board seemed to agree that, for the time being, it would no longer offer for sale tax-forfeited lands to either tribe in the county. Rather than selling to the tribe, St. Louis County just won't sell at all.

The Board also agreed that until certain "financial issues" could be resolved with the two tribes (i.e., extracting payments from the tribes) the county would oppose every tribal application to the United States to place tribal lands into federal trust status.

Some basic history is necessary to understand this issue clearly. By the 1850's, the Minnesota territory was experiencing an influx of homesteaders and immigrants. An application for statehood was being planned by its founders. However, outstanding questions related to Indian land title throughout much of the territory presented major complications. It was the LaPointe Treaty of 1854 that resolved the questions of title and opened the door for statehood. In this Treaty, the Chippewa Bands ceded nearly 25% of the total land mass comprising the present states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. It set aside permanent homelands for the Bands who were signatories to the Treaty.

Prior to 1854, the Fond du Lac Band's homelands were at the mouth of the St. Louis River, covering a wide expanse of what is now the city of Duluth. Federal and territorial officials desperately wanted the port area. The Band was forced to cede its lands in the Lake Superior watershed and was uprooted and moved to the west, where its present-day Indian Reservation is located.

As part of this real estate transaction, Fond du Lac was promised 100,000 acres inside of its reservation boundary. However, unscrupulous lumber barons obsessed with getting access to the valuable timber schemed to divest the tribes from their lands. From 1863 to 1884, every trick in the book was employed. Indians were tricked out of their lands and in many cases land was stolen. Finally, the Nelson Act of 1889 paved the way for logging companies to get reservation timber practically for free. A combination of theft and trickery resulted in most reservations lands being dwindled to a fraction of what they once were. While the reservation boundaries still existed, most lands within the reservations fell into non-Indian ownership. Fond du Lac's land holdings were reduced by over 80%.

In adopting the 1985 law requiring St. Louis County to offer right of first-refusal of tax-forfeited lands on the Fond du Lac Reservation to the Fond du Lac Band, the clear intention of Minnesota was to facilitate the Band's efforts to repurchase its own lands, thereby enhancing government service-delivery. The Band needed more land for resource management, education, health, housing and other government services.

When a tribe repurchases its own lands within its own boundaries, it is common for the tribe to request that the United States take the lands into federal trust status. Federal trust status affords permanent federal protection of the lands from ever being encroached again. Given our sad history, you can't blame the tribes for wanting federal protection of their lands. In fact, it was out of recognition of the land theft that took place in counties like St. Louis that the Congress, in section 5 of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (25 U.S.C. 465), conferred a discretionary power upon the Secretary of the Interior to take land into trust for Indians and Indian tribes.

Section 5 provides that-- "The Secretary of the Interior is hereby authorized, in his discretion, to acquire, through purchase, relinquishment, gift, exchange, or assignment, any interest in lands, water rights, or surface rights to lands, within or without existing reservations, including trust or otherwise restricted allotments, whether the allottee be living or deceased, for the purpose of providing land for Indians . .. . . Title to any land or rights acquired pursuant to this Act shall be taken in the name of the United States in trust f or the Indian tribe or individual Indian for which the land is acquired, and such lands or rights shall be exempt from State and local taxation."

It is the exemption from State and local taxation that suddenly has the county concerned about lands being placed into federal trust status. Indian tribes are governments, and in our system governments do not tax other governments. If the County sold land to ISD 709, it would not tax the school district. If the County sold the land to the City, it would not charge property taxes to the city. Counties have never been able to tax tribes for lands in federal trust. Why would the county expect any less of a respectful relationship with tribes than it has with a school district?

With the economic downturn and budget shortfalls, apparently St. Louis County is desperate enough that it is now willing to pick a fight with the largest employers in St. Louis County over what amounts to pennies in comparison to the economic benefits in the region provided by the tribes. The genesis of this new concern came about at a meeting Dennis Fink attended in Washington D.C. He had conversations with commissioners from other counties specifically referencing issues in the State of California where tribes placing lands into federal trust have created "problems". County commissioners were advised to go home and study their own counties for similar "problems". To Mr. Fink's credit, he did some research on this matter and discovered paperwork errors on the part of the county. But he went further and identified questions he thought needed answering: Citing his position as being one of "no net loss of private lands", he wanted to know what the county's blanket policy should be on tribes placing land into trust. He further asked if the Board should oppose all requests for lands to be placed into federal trust status.

First, commissioners should understand that comparing controversial land-into-trust issues in California with St. Louis County is comparing apples and oranges. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act requires that tribal casinos can only be built on federal trust lands. In California, some tribes are attempting to purchase off-reservation lands near major metropolitan areas for the purpose of opening casinos and in a few instances the issue has become controversial. That's not what's happening in St. Louis County. Fond du Lac and Bois Forte already have established casinos on federal trust land. The new lands they place into federal trust status are being used for delivery of government services. Further, unlike California, the lands Fond du Lac wishes to purchase are on-reservation and originally owned by the Band.

Second, the fear of revenue loss to the county when lands are placed into trust is short-sighted and illogical. Remember, you are talking about tax-forfeited land. If the County doesn't offer it for sale to the Band, it must sit on it indefinitely, likely costing the county more just to administer the land than it would if the land was sold to the Band which would use it productively for the benefit of tribal members (who are county citizens, remember). The disturbing tone of "if we have to sell to the Indians, we aren't selling at all" was disquieting, to say the least.

Third, tying the sale of land to the Band with the cost of providing services to Indian families in the county was alarming. One commissioner stated that the tribe should only be able to purchase lands if they would agree to be completely "autonomous", including taking care of all the education needs of the Indians in the county, which makes no sense at all since the county doesn't pay for education. This commissioner also stated her mistaken belief that only a very small portion of the reservation was paying any taxes to the county and the Band was a drain on human services money. Another commissioner noted there are nearly 8000 Native Americans in St. Louis County and the tribes should accept that they have a general community responsibility for them. The implication was that somehow these 8000 people are, as a group, a financial burden on the county. We are very concerned by promulgation of these negative stereotypes of Indian people in St. Louis County which are factually incorrect.

We can assure you that several of the signatories of this letter are hard-working, property-tax paying Indian citizens of St. Louis County and possibly paying higher taxes than some commissioners. To stereotype us as a group as somehow being a burden on the county is offensive. Further, of the 8000 citizens of St. Louis County with tribal heritage, only a fraction both live and work on the two reservations. Many Fond du Lac or Bois Forte members who live in St. Louis County are not on the reservations, but are in cities and towns spread throughout the county and own land and are paying the same taxes everyone else pays. Finally, while the total enrolled membership of Fond du Lac and Bois Forte is approximately 7000, approximately half do not even reside in St. Louis County, but have moved away to other counties or states. This means that roughly half of the American Indians in St. Louis County are not Fond du Lac or Bois Forte members.

Tribal citizenship is a political governmental determination, not a racial designation. In Duluth alone, the Indian population represents more than 30 tribes from across the Nation. To imply that somehow these two tribes are "responsible" for every one of the 8000 people in the county with tribal heritage is absurd, it is paternalist and demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of the framework of tribal governments.

Then there is the financial matter. We understand that the county is panicking over budget shortfalls and declining revenue. As citizens of St. Louis County, we share in your concern. However, burning bridges or picking fights with two of the most valuable partners and employers in St. Louis County over a few thousand dollars is incredibly short-sighted. The annual "loss" of tax revenue from these parcels is probably not enough to pay for the annual mileage reimbursement for commissioners to attend Board meetings. But the benefits the county derives from the two tribes and the Indian people in St. Louis County are far-reaching.

Fond du Lac has granted $50,000 to the county, which Sheriff Littman apparently only recently accepted. Bois Forte financed upgrading the 911 system in St. Louis County, benefitting all residents on the north end of the county. Both tribes have financed road construction and maintenance. There are health facilities, education facilities, a tribal college and millions in environmental protection. Then there is the more than $5 million dollars the city of Duluth derives from its unique revenue sharing agreement with Fond du Lac, along with payroll taxes over $65 million annually generated by Fond du Lac alone.

There is a painfully obvious double-standard at work here. If Microsoft were willing to locate in St. Louis County, state and local officials would be falling all over themselves in a rush to offer wide-ranging tax breaks. The benefits the county is deriving from the existence of the Fond du Lac Reservation far outweigh any "costs" associated with a few acres coming off the tax roles.

We know there are good people on the Board, and good people sometimes have bad days. We would hope that the attitude of "if we have to sell to the Indians, we're not selling at all" is not a permanent position, because it is a reprehensible one and an embarrassment to St. Louis County. Temporarily, that is in fact the county's position. If the county doesn't want to offer land for sale to Fond du Lac, then it's only recourse is to not sell, leaving the land non-productive and non-revenue generating.

In the near future, the Board will hopefully meet with tribal leadership. The Board should also consider immediate steps toward repairing potential damage done to its relationship with American Indian taxpayers resulting from the discussion last week. We have the resources in our own community and local tribes who could educate the Board about our shared regional history, the legal framework of Indian tribes, and the facts regarding taxation and economic development. If nothing else, the discussion last week proved this education is long overdue.

In the end, we should all work together to build a future of shared prosperity and hope for all of our children. But for that to occur, the County cannot allow it's discussion about tribal issues to degenerate to the low level it did last week. Misinformation and stereotypes harm everyone. Let's not allow that to happen again.


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