Expansion-minded tribe has Scott County on edge again

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 6, 2011 - 2:43 PM

Its requests to place more land in trust have pitted legal worries against a gradually warming friendship.

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Shakopee tribe environmental specialists Shawn Kelley, left, and Dana Christopherson walked through a maple stand on Indian land while harvesting sap. The sap is boiled down into maple syrup, which is given out to tribal members.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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The casino-enriched Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community wants to take a few more chunks of land off the Scott County tax rolls, and the move has the county in a pinch.

County board members aren't treating it as catastrophic, but their county attorney claims the whole deal is "contrary to law."

Since the last major move of this type in 2007, County Attorney Pat Ciliberto told board members last week, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared its position on a key question at stake -- and not in a way that favors the tribe that runs the Mystic Lake casino.

"Now we have bright-line decision that I believe controls [these matters]," he declared -- meaning one that makes them simple to judge.

The tribe disagrees. It points out that the board chose not to intervene in 2009, following the decision Ciliberto is citing, when the tribe sought to transfer an 80-acre hole in the middle of its holdings into the same status it seeks now.

At stake today are three parcels of land in Prior Lake and Shakopee adding up to about 150 acres: one of 130 acres, one of 23 and one of just two acres.

That's a relative pittance compared to the thousands it owns. The original 250-acre core has been expanded since 1991 by nearly 3,000 acres, by the tribe's own reckoning.

Much of that land will remain on the tax rolls. Tribal administrator Bill Rudnicki reminded board members that the tribe pays more than $600,000 a year in property taxes, and it voluntarily pays hundreds of thousands more to Prior Lake and the county in addition to millions in individual donations over the years.

Seconding what commissioners themselves were quick to point out, he added:

"If I look back 10 years ago, five years ago, three years ago, our relationship has really improved. Work needs to be done on the tribe's side to keep improving it -- that's a day-to-day thing -- but we appreciate the decision this board made in 2009."

Contrary to rumor, he said, the tribe does not seek any of form of world domination by recovering vast stretches of its ancient holdings all across the county.

"Our land ordinance says that we can buy only within a mile of our current reservation," he said, "and we have followed that. You don't see issues in Jordan or Belle Plaine."

Lots of folks suspect the tribe has wider ambitions. As recently as the Shakopee city elections this fall, a veteran council member declared that the tribe "would like this town we're sitting on now. They would like to have it all back at some point, and we'd like to probably stay here."

A tribal leader once made a never-to-be-forgotten statement suggesting aspirations stretching far out into the open countryside, if not the existing subdivisions of town, but other tribal officials have since pooh-poohed that.

The legal issue the board now confronts stems from what's known as the Carcieri case, which grew out of a dispute between the Rhode Island tribes and the federal government.

In that case, a divided court ruled that the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs lacks authority to take land into trust unless a tribe was under federal jurisdiction in 1934, when the law allowing these trust lands was passed.

"The Shakopee community did not become federally recognized until 1969," County Attorney Ciliberto said.

The Carcieri case was decided on Feb. 24, 2009, well after the most recent large-scale trust application, which sought hundreds of acres and was heatedly contested in 2007.

But Rudnicki noted that the federal government approved the trust status of the so-called Dolan parcel on Nov. 6, 2009, after the Carcieri case. The Interior Department decided the tribe in 1934 was considered part of a wider Sioux group across southern Minnesota.

Even so, the board unanimously agreed to at least raise the question about whether the Carcieri case forbids the transfer. Commissioner Dave Menden, representing Shakopee, said:

"That's 150 acres less that you're getting tax on, and someone [else] has to pay for that. I would definitely like to voice an opinion on it. I'd also like to sit down with the tribe and have a conversation over this: Is there any way to get some reimbursement? Are there options?"

Rudnicki suggested that both sides have let things slip a bit when it comes to communication.

"We used to have meetings with leadership and we need to get back on that," he said. "Our leadership realizes they haven't been meeting with the county. Everyone, I know, has schedules and priorities -- but I wanted to let you know that my goal is to get those meetings on track."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

  • TO LEARN MORE

    The federal agency responsible for tribal trust applications has posted prominently on its website a letter from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar which urges it to help improve relations with tribes by restoring and protecting their homelands. You can read it at www.startribune.com/a860.

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