Tensions arise between Natives, Non-Natives in Indian Country

Twin Metals Minnesota Project

By Lee Egerstrom

Despite political successes for the Native community in Minnesota in recent years, 2020 has started with tension building between Native and Non-Native groups over environmental issues, reservation boundaries and tribal sovereignty rights.

How this eventually plays out is impossible to know. What is obvious, however, is that the current strains are proving to be divisive between and within the affected communities, and will be into the foreseeable future.

This comes after Native Minnesotans have gained strength politically in important public positions. Lt. Gov. Peggy Flannigan, a White Earth member, is the highest ranking Native woman in American. Native Minnesotans have won elections to the state legislature, and hold county and local offices across the state, both urban and rural.

The Circle has compiled a look at what other media are reporting and on statements issued by groups and leaders involved that may be endangering these gains.

Copper nickel mining
One big friction is whether federal authorities will allow Twin Metals Minnesota – a subsidiary of a Chilean mining company – to begin copper-nickel mining near Ely. This planned underground mine development, which is a sulfide mining process, is within Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) headwaters.

Environmental groups generally oppose the plan. Mining and sympathetic labor groups generally support it. Here’s the political shakeout.

As reported by the Duluth News Tribune, Hibbing Daily Tribune, Timberjay, Ely Echo and other Minnesota media, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe officially supports federal legislation that would ban the mine development in the BWCAW and Voyageurs National Park watershed.

The tribe is a central government for Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, Grand Portage, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs and White Earth reservations. The Red Lake Nation has different treaty history and is the only Ojibwe group outside the tribal organization.

The federal bill is sponsored by Rep. Betty McCollum, a DFL congresswoman from the St. Paul area and a staunch supporter of BWCAW and environmental programs.

With Bois Forte participating in the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe’s statement of support for the mining ban, local labor groups brought pressure on Minnesota State Sen. Tom Bakk, a DFLer who represents the area, to move his annual golf fundraising party this year from Bois Forte’s Fortune Bay resort.

A report of Bakk’s moving away from Fortune Bay in the Timberjay newspaper, based at Tower, triggered harsh environmental or boycott criticisms by people caught up in the dispute. The Ely Echo summed it up well with the Feb. 21 headline, “Mayor in a Tweetstorm.”

As political lines get drawn, Eric Killelea of the Hibbing Daily Tribune noted on Feb. 8 that Republican Minnesota Reps. Tom Emmer and Pete Stauber both oppose the McCollum bill. Stauber represents northeast Minnesota in Congress.

The Hibbing report quoted Stauber as telling a House subcommittee, “The communities on the Iron Range area in desperate need of economic revitalization. There needs to be quality jobs available for folks to stick around after high school.”

The copper-nickel mine is projected to create around 2,000 jobs.

Countering that jobs argument, Bois Forte chairwoman and Minnesota Chippewa Tribe President Cathy Chavers reminded members of Congress of sovereignty issues that protect the Ojibwe way of life. She mentioned Chippewa tribe members retain hunting, fishing and other rights under the 1854 Treaty of La Pointe that could be endangered by mining and contamination of waters.

Along that line, McCollum asked for and received a U.S. State Department report on environmental effects on international waters, supposedly protected by international treaty. She got money for the review in a December appropriations bill.

“The State Department’s eight-paragraph response would be excellent for a grade school-level book report, but as a report to Congress it is an embarrassingly inadequate document,” she told the Duluth News Tribune.

Canada may still enter the fray. The International Joint Commission, founded in 1909, is the binational watchdog and dispute organization protecting shared boundary waters.

Minnesotans from all corners of the state will likely weigh in as well. The Minneapolis Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) reported Feb. 25 that their MPR/Star Tribune Poll found 60 percent of Minnesotans want the Boundary Waters protected.
The poll found only 22 percent favor mining near the Boundary Waters; 18 percent remain undecided.

Meanwhile, more attention may be focused on this and other environmental disputes in northern Minnesota before the year is out.

On Feb. 22, the Duluth News Tribune reported Gaylene Spolarich, of Palisade, has joined Quinn Nystrom of Baxter and Soren Sorensen of Bemidji in seeking the DFL endorsement to run for Congress against Stauber in the 8th District.

Spolarich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota, has lived most of her life in Minnesota and has worked the last 25 year in Mille Lacs Band tribal government. The 8th District DFL convention will be May 2 at Mille Lac’s Grand Casino Hinckley.

Signaling where her campaign may be headed, Spolarich told the newspaper, “I believe we can have a thriving economy and compassionate culture in northeastern Minnesota by putting the health and wellbeing of all people, and our natural environment, at the center of decision-making.”

Mille Lacs boundaries
Equally difficult relations have arisen in and around the Mille Lacs Band and will now play out in courts.

David Orrick, reporting in the Feb 20 St. Paul Pioneer Press, detailed how Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has reversed previous state positions in a court filing supporting the Mille Lacs Band’s claim to 61,000 acres of reservation land in and around Mille Lacs Lake.

Gov. Tim Walz supports this new state position.

Mille Lacs County claims the Band has only about 4,000 acres on scattered lands held in trust by the federal government.

At issue is whether later Mille Lacs Band and U.S. government treaties ended an 1855 treaty establishing the Mille Lacs Reservation. If the Mille Lacs, and now Minnesota state positions are upheld in legal cases, the original Mille Lacs Reservation boundaries would be restored.

This would clear up jurisdictional disputes between the Band, county and some municipalities. Orrick noted that thousands of non-tribal residents and businesses, plus the communities of Isle, Wahkon, Vineland and part of Onamia would be under the jurisdiction of the federal government and tribal authorities.

In her 2020 State of the Band address in January, Mille Lacs chief executive Melanie Benjamin said a dispute over local policing powers was central to the problems with the county. “We did the only thing we could do,” she said in remarks printed on the Band’s website. “In 2018, we filed suit against Mille Lacs County in federal court.”

While the county tried to get the Band to agree that the reservation no longer exists, the county has issued something of an olive branch since Ellison supported the Band in court filings.

“The county urges all its citizens, residents and visitors – Band members and non-Band members – to continue to treat each other with respect and dignity and to ‘agree to disagree’ on this issue even while focusing on the many, many things that bind us together as a community,” it said in a posted statement.

“We are confident that, whatever the outcome of the legal process in federal court, we will move forward as neighbors and friends.”