In a new lawsuit rekindling an old dispute, descendants of so-called “friendly” Dakota Indians are asking a federal judge to help them reclaim 12 square miles in southern Minnesota that Congress promised them more than 150 years ago.
The class-action lawsuit was filed this week in U.S. District Court on behalf of up to 20,000 great-great-grandchildren of Dakota who helped white settlers during the bloody U.S.-Dakota War in 1862.
An act of Congress in 1863 authorized the interior secretary to convey the land to “loyal Mdewakanton” as an “inheritance to said Indians and their heirs forever.” According to the lawsuit, that act has never been repealed.
This latest legal tactic could take years, but if successful, would mean roughly 100 farmers in Renville, Sibley and Redwood counties would be among those “ejected” from the 12 miles near Morton. The suit also demands “monetary payments for trespass.”
Dakota descendants forced from Minnesota after the 1862 war would be welcomed back to a new reservation — if the suit prevails.
“We’re going to clear these people off this land and go to North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Canada and invite back those whose ancestors were chased out of Minnesota in 1863,” said attorney Erick Kaardal, a legal pointman in similar litigation for more than 10 years.
Adding to the complexity of the wrangling, the 12-mile tract includes the Lower Sioux Community and its Jackpot Junction casino in Morton.
“We are trying to figure out how we became a defendant, and we are trying to sort all this out,” Denny Prescott, president of the Lower Sioux Tribal Council, said Wednesday. “We have done what the government has allowed us to do for 150 years and I don’t know how we’re a defendant, but we’ll examine the facts alleged before we make a formal statement.”
This latest lawsuit is a spinoff of 11 years of litigation in which the same group of Dakota sought money from casino proceeds in federal claims court from three Dakota tribes in Minnesota.
Tribes may challenge
This case is expected to kick up long-simmering inter-Dakota tensions between the plaintiffs and the three federally recognized Dakota tribes — the casino-wealthy Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, the Prairie Island Indian Community near Red Wing and the less well-off Lower Sioux, who would be kicked off their reservation if the suit succeeds.
All three recognized tribes are expected to challenge this suit after the last round of litigation brought into question how their tribal membership was determined.
That suit eventually lost on appeal, but it left a door open for this action, Kaardal said. Just because a federal claims court attempt failed doesn’t mean a land title suit won’t win, he added.
“Everyone wrote us off for dead,” Kaardal said. “But they didn’t understand that these are two different courts with different functions.”
He said Gen. Ulysses Grant, before he became U.S. president, supported the decision to set aside the land for the “friendly” Dakota. Col. Henry Sibley, Minnesota’s first governor, even escorted the tribal members from Faribault toward the tract until fear of angry settlers halted their movement.
But the law remained on the books.
“The only way to get rid of a federal statute establishing title is to repeal the statute,” Kaardal said. The U.S. government, in the earlier litigation, conceded that such a repeal never happened.
The suit names dozens of farmers as defendants, along with a school district and the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota.
“My reaction is surprise because I hadn’t heard a thing about it,” said Barbara Dahms, 68, who lives on nearly 80 acres with her husband, Elmer, near Redwood Falls. Both are named as defendants. “I’m very curious to see what will result from this, but it sounds quite unrealistic, so I’m not going to start worrying about losing our land.”
Kaardal said his next step would be to certify up to 20,000 Dakota as a class in the suit. They would all have to show that their family trees trace to an 1886 census that listed more than 250 Dakota deemed as “friendly” after the war. More than 600 white immigrant settlers were killed in a series of 1862 summer battles, which erupted as the Civil War raged down south.
The Dakota who went to war were starving when the food and gold promised in treaties never arrived — sparking their decision to try to win back their land. The war ended with the largest mass execution in U.S. history when 38 Dakota were hanged in Mankato the day after Christmas in 1862.