Federal officials close to compensating Chippewa bands for tribal land


It’s taken 123 years, but the federal government is the closest it’s ever been to compensating Minnesota’s Chippewa bands for tribal land that the U.S. government sold unfairly.

On March 1 a bill that would award millions of dollars to the six bands that make up the tribe and their members, will receive a hearing before a House committee in Washington. The money would settle a dispute over a century-old land deal.

But not all tribal members think the deal is fair.

In 1889, the Congress passed the Nelson Act, which consolidated Minnesota’s Chippewa reservations by allocating plots to individual tribal members and selling off the rest of the reservation land. The act aimed to assimilate the tribes, in part by shrinking the size of the reservation. Money raised from the sale was supposed to help the tribe, but the government sold it at prices considerably below market value.

"They were listing it as swamp land, which was probably $2 per acre, as opposed to timber land," said Gary Frazer, executive director of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. "It was really timberland and they were classifying it as swamp lands."

In 1946, the Chippewa tribe filed a lawsuit against the government, seeking full compensation for the land. The tribe argued the money the federal government raised wasn’t used appropriately. But an agreement wasn’t reached until 1999, when federal officials offered the tribe $20 million. Tribal leaders accepted.

But a disagreement within the tribe over how the money should be distributed stalled the payment. Since then, the money has sat in an account, slowly collecting interest, making the payout now closer to $28 million.

Frazer said it’s time to get the money out of the government’s hands.

"The biggest thing right now, is that it’s earning like a half a percent interest," he said. "It’s ridiculous what it earns. I mean, if you had $20 million dollars and you had it invested – because interest rates were pretty high for a while there – for 13 years, you think it would earn more than $8 million dollars."

Fighting among the six bands that make up the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe has a lot to do with the government’s delay in paying the tribe.

Frank Bibeau, the attorney for the Leech Lake Band, said it is entitled to roughly 70 percent of the settlement because that’s the proportion of land the band lost. Bibeau said the band is open to compromise, but plans to do whatever it takes to derail a bill should Congress proceed with a plan the Leech Lake Band considers unfair.

"We would like to think that Congress wants to do the right thing," he said. "We would like to think that we can educate them in such a way that they’ll understand that they have to pay the Indians they took the land and timber from. … Don’t just pay some Indians."

Congress is moving forward. U.S. Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, and U.S. Reps. Chip Cravaack, Colin Peterson and Erik Paulsen, are all working on legislation that allows for the payment to finally occur.

The bills reflect what most of the Chippewa tribe wants. Each tribal member would receive $300. The remainder would be split evenly between the six bands, each receiving about $3 million.

But that doesn’t reflect what the Leech Lake Band wants. Franken said Minnesota’s Congressional delegation worked hard to seek unanimous consensus within the Chippewa tribe, but couldn’t.

"We just felt that now it’s time to make sure that some of the elders get this money before it’s too late," he said.

A hearing was held on March 1 in the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs. Cravaack said the hearing was to let the Leech Lake Band, once again, reiterate its concerns.

"We’re working to try to resolve this so that we honor what the sovereign nations of the Chippewa want us to do," Cravaack said. "But Leech Lake has said ‘wait a minute; we have an issue.’ We’d like to discuss it."

It’s too soon to know if a bill will get passed this Congress. The House and Senate still need to go through a process where the bill can be amended and rewritten, if necessary. The final version likely would be rolled into a larger piece of legislation before Congress would vote on it.

If settlement language does pass, members of the Leech Lake Band say they will likely take their argument to the courts if band leaders don’t like what they see.

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