Six Chippewa bands to split $28 million federal payoutCongress moves to settle an 1800s land transaction that took timber and farm land from Chippewa reservations.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
The federal government appears ready to make amends for a dark period in Indian relations 123 years ago that took timber and land from six northern Minnesota Chippewa reservations.
Legislation is advancing in Washington that would release a $20 million settlement to the Fond du Lac, Bois Forte, Grand Portage, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs and White Earth bands of Chippewa. The money originally was awarded in 1999 but has been tied up ever since.
Now totaling more than $28 million with interest, a recently struck compromise among five of the six bands will see part of the money divided among individual enrolled members of the five bands — $300 for each person — with almost $3 million awarded to each of the six band governments.
“We need these funds released now,’ said Norman DeSchampe, chairman of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, in testimony to a U.S. Senate committee earlier this month. “It’s been too long, and our members are constantly asking about the Nelson Act claims.”
Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band, said officials already have decided to distribute their $3 million share directly to the band’s 4,221 enrolled members in addition to the $300 per-capita payment. Other bands have that option as well.
The issue has roots in congressional passage of the Dawes Act of 1887 and the Nelson Act of 1889 that split up thousands of acres of what had been reservation land to individuals. Much of that land was bought by the government, timber and railroad barons and non-Indians, leaving little within reservation boundaries actually controlled by the Chippewa. For example, White Earth lost all but 800 acres. And Indians saw little of the money they were promised under the act for the land they lost.
Tribal historians said the effort was little more than a technically legal swindle of the Indian bands. In 1999, a federal court agreed, awarding a $20 million Nelson Act settlement to be split between the six bands involved.
But then inter-tribal bickering kicked in. Officials of the six bands were unable to agree on how the money should be divided. White Earth, with 52 percent of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe population, wanted the money awarded per-capita. The Bureau of Indian Affairs agreed. The other five bands wanted the money split evenly among each band, which was the official vote of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe government.
Pending an agreement, however, the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided not to release the money.
The stalemate spilled into Washington politics, where Democratic members of the U.S. House from Minnesota, Collin Peterson, who represents the White Earth area, favored the White Earth stand and former Rep. Jim Oberstar, who represented the other five bands, favored the equal split.
Now, an agreement has been struck between five of the six bands, with Leech Lake still not signing on. Legislation to release the money is being pushed by DFL Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar and Reps. Peterson and Chip Cravaack, R-Minn.
Diver credited Franken and Cravaack for moving the issue forward even without a unanimous agreement.
“It’s a big deal, not just because of the money, but because (Congress) is finally recognizing that the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe constitution works by majority rule,’’ Diver told the News Tribune. “For a long time they (officials in Washington) wanted us to have a unanimous agreement. But that just wasn’t going to happen. Under our government, it didn’t have to happen. Now we can move forward under our constitution and actually distribute the money.”
“The federal government owes the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe this money,’’ Franken said in testimony to a Senate hearing on the issue earlier this month. “But tribal members cannot receive a dime until Congress passes a distribution formula.”
SF1739 received a hearing Feb. 2 in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. HR 1272, introduced by Cravaack and Peterson, will be heard in the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs on March 1.
“I am eager to finally get these funds out of the Interior Department trust, where they have been sitting since 1999, and back to Minnesota’s Chippewa,’’ Cravaack said.
Beginning in 1854, treaties creating reservations for Minnesota’s Chippewa bands were enacted by Congress. But soon after the reservations were formed, the Dawes Act of 1887 and the Nelson Act of 1889 initiated the allotment of American Indian land to individual members. The federal government wanted all of the state’s Chippewa to move to the White Earth Reservation. Most resisted the effort and remained on their home reservations, opting to take their land allotment there.
Eventually, many of the Indians sold or lost their allotments in unscrupulous land deals, drastically reducing the amount of land actually controlled by Chippewa peoples by 1900.
The Red Lake Band is considered a separate entity and is not part of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.