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WASHINGTON - More than a century after pioneers and the U.S. government swindled northern Minnesota's Indian tribes in land and timber deals, Congress is again talking about repaying the debt.
In a proposed move some tribal leaders say would bring long-awaited closure, lawmakers are debating a $28 million payment to six Chippewa bands. But the Leech Lake Band has called the plan unfair and threatened to sue.
Under the proposed plan, more than 40,000 Chippewa members would receive $300 each. The remaining $16 million would be split among the governments of the six bands that constitute the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe -- Fond du Lac, Bois Forte, Grand Portage, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs and White Earth.
The Red Lake Tribe, a separate legal entity, negotiated its own $27 million settlement in the late 1990s. The federal government also agreed to pay the other tribes $20 million, but squabbling over how to divide the money has kept it tied up, accruing interest.
"We talked over the years about different formulas, but finally five of the six reservations said: 'Let's get this thing done; it's carrying on a long time,'" said Norman Deschampe, chairman of both the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and the Grand Portage Band.
Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said her band plans to divide its share of the money -- more than $2.5 million -- among its members so that each will get an additional $700, for a total of $1,000.
"It will bring some level of closure," said Diver, who added that mismanagement of Indian land decades ago cost her reservation dearly.
Of the 100,000 acres within the Fond du Lac reservation's borders, 80 percent fell into non-Indian hands. The band has since bought some back and now holds about 33 percent of the land within its borders, Diver said.
Not all bands have been so fortunate. The land grab included a phenomenon some northern Minnesota Chippewa called "The Wandering 40," said Jim Northrup, a Fond du Lac Band member and author who lives near Cloquet.
"A timber company would buy the stumpage rights on an Indian's allotted 40 or 80 acres, but then they'd get in there cutting and just keep wandering," Northrup explained.
'It was devastating'
The settlement stems from the federal government's management of the 1889 Nelson Allotment Act, under which some reservation land was allotted to individual Indians but other plots were ceded to the United States and sold to non-Indians. Proceeds from the sales were supposed to go into a trust fund for the Chippewa.
In many cases, that didn't happen. For example, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs dipped into the trust fund for maintaining its vehicles and other day-to-day expenses. In 1999, a federal court found that the deal shortchanged the tribes, also known as the Ojibwe, and awarded the multi-million-dollar settlement.
The land comprises 650,000 acres across the six reservations, from White Earth in western Minnesota to Grand Portage at the tip of Minnesota's Arrowhead country.
Stripping and selling the land deprived the tribe of development opportunities, said Mark Anderson, a Bois Forte Band member and Minneapolis-based attorney for the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.
In 1948 and 1951, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe brought those allegations in complaints to the Indian Claims Commission. Those claims eventually formed the basis for the federal government's agreement to pay the Chippewa $20 million.
Officials of the one dissenting band -- Leech Lake -- say their band deserves more because almost 70 percent of the total damages are acknowledged to have stemmed from under-evaluation and mismanagement of Leech Lake reservation land. Only about 5 percent of the land within the Leech Lake reservation's borders remains in Indian hands.
"Enacting legislation that completely ignores these damages would constitute yet another violation of our treaty rights and only serve to compound the injury done," Leech Lake Chairman Arthur "Archie" LaRose told members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. "I look forward to continuing this dialogue ... to resolve this matter in a way that is fair."
LaRose said that the Leech Lake tribal government will refuse its share of the settlement and file suit. Representatives of the Bois Forte, Grand Portage and Mille Lacs bands said those bands haven't decided what to do with their shares.
"When the check is cut and on its way, then a plan will be made for how to spend it," said Helen Wilkie, a spokeswoman for the Bois Forte Band. "Until then, it would be a little silly, given that this whole thing has been dragged out for 60 years."
The White Earth Band did not respond to a request for information.
LaRose and Deschampe were among the witnesses who came to Washington last Thursday for a U.S. House subcommittee hearing to consider the bill that would finally release the funds.
Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band, praised backers of the bill sponsored by Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., for "respecting [the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe's] constitution and authority" and moving to release the settlement, despite the lack of unanimity on how to spend the money.
The House and Senate will revise and amend the bill, but its chances for passage remain unclear.
Many individual Chippewa, including Northrup, don't find much comfort in what they see as woefully inadequate compensation for what their ancestors lost.
"A thousand dollars is [nothing more than] a good night at bingo," Northrup said. "It should be $28 billion, not $28 million. They're just trying to make legitimate the theft of Indian land."
Larry Oakes • 612-269-0504. Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @StribMitchell