St. Louis County Board won’t sell land to indians

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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: www.northernmnnews.com/Audio%20links.html .