Court decision shrinks Wisconsin Tribe’s reservation

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A January court ruling shrinking a Wisconsin Indian tribe’s reservation means gambling cannot resume at a golf course and some tribal members may have to pay back taxes.

Congress has eliminated a 46,000-acre reservation given to the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe in 1856, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled. The decision means the reservation consists of parcels about one-third that size that Congress later set aside for the tribe.

The decision came in a decade-long legal dispute between the state of

Wisconsin and the tribe that started when the tribe purchased Pine

Hills Golf Course and Supper Club in Shawano County in the 1990s.

The golf course is on the original reservation, and the tribe, under

its gambling compact with the state, started operating about 170 slot

machines there. The state filed suit in 1998, saying the slots were

illegal because the land was no longer within the reservation’s

boundaries.

In 1999, U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia Gorence granted an injunction

that shut down the slot machines while the courts considered whether

they were located inside the reservation. In 2004, she agreed with the

state that the reservation no longer existed as it did in 1856.

The reservation was downsized by an 1871 law that allowed timber

companies to purchase part of the land and eliminated by a 1906 act

that allotted remaining parcels to tribal members, Gorence ruled.

The tribe appealed, but the case was put on hold while the parties

tried to reach a settlement. After negotiations failed, the case

resumed and a three-member panel of the appeals court upheld Gorence’s

decision.

Neither law contained language specifically downsizing or eliminating

the reservation, but a review of the record shows that was Congress’

intent, Judge Terence Evans wrote for the panel. Government agencies

mostly treated the reservation as abolished after the second law

passed, he wrote.

Tribal President Bob Chicks said he was disappointed with the decision

and is reviewing legal options. The tribe could ask the full 7th

Circuit to reconsider the decision or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The tribe has always claimed the property inside the 1856 boundaries,

which include the townships of Bartelme and Red Springs, Chicks said.

About half of the 1,500 tribal members live inside that area.

If it stands, the decision could have implications for tribal members

who live in the disputed boundaries and have not been paying taxes.

In 2000, the tribe agreed to collect taxes that could be due if its

appeal failed. That escrow account could soon be turned over to the

state. The program was voluntary, however, and some may not have

participated.

Once the case is resolved, the Department of Revenue could seek back taxes and penalties against tribal members.

The ruling is one more setback for the Stockbridge-Munsee, whose

history has been marked by displacement and conflict. The tribe was

pushed from the east coast to near Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin in the

1800s and then forced to give up that reservation in exchange for its

current location in 1856.

The appeals court noted that land “turned out to be heavily forested

and difficult to farm – not quite the arable land that had been

promised in the treaty.” And within 15 years, Congress allowed timber

companies to buy most of it.

Along with the golf course, the tribe owns and operates the Mohican

North Star Casino and Bingo and the Stockbridge-Munsee Health and

Wellness Center.