Washington – The federal government would return 11,760 acres of land to the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe as part of a measure moving through Congress.
The measure reverses a land seizure by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) that began in the late 1940s, when the agency authorized the sale of tribal land allotments to the U.S. Forest Service without the owners’ consent. Sen. Tina Smith, a sponsor, has said that the bill would restore land “that was wrongfully taken from” the Ojibwe.
“A robust land base is the foundation of tribal sovereignty and self-determination,” Leech Lake chairman Faron Jackson Sr. told a panel of lawmakers over the summer.
The measure passed the U.S. Senate, but awaits action in the U.S. House, where Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan has led the effort. The lower chamber has until the end of the year to act.
Starting in 1948, the BIA incorrectly interpreted an executive order from the U.S. Department of Interior and began the process of “secretarial transfer,” shifting more tribal lands to the Chippewa National Forest. The secretary of the interior determined the transfers were illegal in the 1950s, but a Supreme Court ruling three decades later limited tribal members’ ability to win back the acreage.
“With this legislation, Congress has an opportunity to right a historic wrong by returning stewardship of these lands to … the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe,” said Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, at a hearing on the bill.
Jackson told the Senate panel that the Leech Lake band has no immediate plans to change the way the land is used; natives and nonnatives alike will hunt, fish, hike, bike and explore there, he said. The land is currently undeveloped.
“It will go a long way to restore our limited land base while preserving land for future generations,” said Jackson.
The Leech Lake band says that it owns the smallest portion of its reservation of any tribe in the state, with local and federal governments owning more than half of the original tribal holdings; most of the forest falls within the reservation’s boundaries.
“In a perfect world, we would ask the federal government for every inch of Leech Lake reservation to go back to its rightful owners, but now with so many different land exchanges and ownership changes that’s probably unrealistic,” said LeRoy Staples Fairbanks, a representative on the Leech Lake Tribal Council. “But the closer we get to resolidifying this land base and righting wrongs, the closer we move towards reconciliation.”
He added: “Our land base is something that we’re so culturally and spiritually tied to — once we decide to piece these things back together, we start to feel whole again.”