Don’t fault the band for requesting help

In meetings and emails, local officials are claiming that the Mille Lacs Band’s recent request for expanded federal jurisdiction is really about “reestablishing” the 61,000-acre Mille Lacs Reservation as defined by the Treaty of 1855.

The band’s effort has been called a “tribal attack” on Mille Lacs — as if “we” are Mille Lacs and “they” are some enemy invading “our” community.

By way of review, there is a longstanding disagreement over the definition of the Mille Lacs Reservation. The state, Mille Lacs County, and the cities of Isle, Wahkon and Onamia believe the reservation was disestablished, citing the Treaty of 1864, the Nelson Act of 1889, and a 1913 Supreme Court decision. They define “the reservation” (if they acknowledge it at all) as 4,000 acres of trust lands in the Vineland and Isle areas.

The Mille Lacs Band and several federal agencies have defined the Mille Lacs Reservation as it was established in the Treaty of 1855. In their view the townships of Kathio, South Harbor and Isle Harbor, including the cities therein, make up the reservation.

The courts refused to hear the case in 2003 because no one was being hurt by the controversy.

That’s the bottom line here: We can agree to disagree on the boundaries of the reservation, and no one needs to get hurt.

At most, the current petition will add one more federal agency (the Department of Justice) to the list of agencies that already recognize the 1855 reservation. If approved, the reservation will not be “reestablished,” and the band will have no additional powers affecting the lives of non-Indians.

For the record, the Messenger has been and remains neutral on the legal questions. We have readers and neighbors on both sides with valid legal arguments to support their respective cases.

We are not neutral with regard to facts, however, and we will continue to respond to falsehoods, misinformation, half-truths and fear-mongering.

Area residents are being told the band would be able to arrest and imprison non-Indians. That’s false, and spreading that kind of misinformation is irresponsible. Even if the band’s request is approved, the state will still have criminal jurisdiction throughout the county. The feds already have jurisdiction over everyone for certain crimes, and that will not change. The increased federal jurisdiction will apply only to Indians accused of crimes.

The Band’s application is what it says it is: A request for additional law enforcement help because the reservation community (however you define it) faces a long-term and ongoing epidemic of crime and violence.

The band government knows the deterrent effect of the recent Native Mob case, in which the feds exercised their jurisdictional power. They want the possibility of hard federal time hanging over the heads of every would-be drug dealer and gun runner on the reservation. Their request deserves thoughtful consideration on those grounds.

Since the county and state foot the bill for prosecution and incarceration of band members, we should also welcome any effort to deter criminals or lessen the costs of law enforcement.

That doesn’t mean the county, state or cities shouldn’t protest the application based on its definition of the reservation, but they should do so in a respectful and realistic manner — not by raising fears of a “tribal attack” or by speculating about hidden motives.

Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger. For more on this issue, see his blog at


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