After researching the history of her family's land in Nebraska and her home in Minneapolis, Twin Cities attorney Jessica Intermill wrestled with the notion that she and her ancestors benefited from stolen land.
Intermill was already working with tribal nations on treaty litigation, but it did not seem like enough.
"Being a bystander is its own moral injury. There's a whole lot of talk of 'I didn't do that, I wasn't here 200 years ago to make that choice,' which is of course true," Intermill said. "We do still benefit from those decisions today."
With the OK from the Lower Sioux Indian Community, Intermill launched an honor tax program, where people can voluntarily contribute to the tribe as an acknowledgement of how they have benefited from Dakota land. The little-known program is the first of its kind in Minnesota and has drawn contributions from more than 100 people since its spring launch.
The idea arose in 2021, when Intermill came across an online webinar called "Beyond Land Acknowledgement" hosted by Native Governance, a nonprofit based in Minnesota working with Native nations. The session offered actionable ideas for participants, and someone mentioned a "land tax program" on the west coast.
The California program, called the Wiyot Honor Tax, is a voluntary tax created by Northern Californians to benefit the Wiyot Nation. Intermill quickly decided that was something she could replicate in Minnesota — if tribal leaders agreed. "I basically built the thing that I wished had already been there," she said.
Intermill started the Mni Sota Makoce Honor Tax program as a material way for Minnesotans to contribute to the Dakota people who were forcibly removed from land in 1862.
Now, she said, anyone can pay a tax of their choosing as way of honoring the land that they are "renting" from the Dakota people that goes toward operations at the Lower Sioux Indian Community, a federally recognized tribe.
As a resident of the Twin Cities, creating a tax that would benefit a Dakota tribe was a no-brainer, Intermill said. Much of the economic violence created when the U.S. broke the Treaty of 1851 and the violence of the War of 1862 that resulted in the forcible exile of the Dakota people from Minnesota took place where the Lower Sioux reservation is today.
Plus, with about 15 years of experience working with the Morton-area community as a lawyer, Intermill, 43, had a long working relationship with tribal leaders including President Robert Larsen.
While Larsen said he had no doubt that Intermill would follow through and use her time to create the program, he said he didn't expect much public interest.
"We didn't think it would be something that would actually produce anything, but Jessica was willing to do this all on her own time. She didn't charge us. And it was her idea. I had never heard of this anywhere else and we thought, 'why not,' " Larsen said.
But Intermill knew there were people who were looking for a way to make reparations, just as she had. For a long time, the best thing she could find was to donate to Native-led nonprofits, she said. But it seemed important to return wealth back to the government, where it was taken from, Intermill said.
Individuals can contribute whatever amount they are comfortable with. Some have pledged to contribute an amount equivalent to their yearly property taxes. A guide on the honor tax website shows that a tax of $33.41 is equivalent to average tax on a trip to the state fair for a family of four, for example. Most often, contributions are recurring and are all over the map, ranging from $10 to hundreds of dollars, Intermill said, though she declined to disclose a total dollar amount.
Lower Sioux is not a nonprofit and funds are considered governmental contributions. Contributions may be tax deductible under federal law, according to the honor tax website.
So far, contributions have come from around the Twin Cities and as far as New York and California. Some people write that they are contributing not solely as reparations, but for the present occupation of Dakota land, Intermill said. Others mention specific ties to ancestral land.
Ian Stade, of Minneapolis, said he decided to contribute because profits from his family's century farm near Fairmont helped him pay for his studies and for a down payment on his home. The fact that the peatland was even available to his ancestors to purchase after they immigrated from Germany made Stade, a librarian, interested in reparations.
"I feel like we we owe something," Stade said. "How did this land become available? Well, through treaties that were pretty unjust when they were signed in 1851 and then the war that pushed the Dakota out of the state."
He contributed .5% of his annual income to the honor tax this year, and plans to do so annually.
Minneapolis contributor Brinsley Davis heard about the California program from a coworker. She wondered whether there was something similar in Minnesota, and found the Mni Sota Makoce Honor Tax online earlier this year even before the website was fully up and running.
Davis contributed between $100 and $200 and set a calendar reminder to do it annually. For her, the contribution is an additional property tax to acknowledge that the land where she resides has a long history.
"I have this huge privilege of having a house and a backyard ... and that's a land-based privilege," Davis said. "If you just think about who was on the land before you and who was forcibly removed from the land, I think it just makes sense."
The initial response has been a pleasant surprise for Lower Sioux tribal council members who doubted that anything would come of it. While no amount of money can pay for what their ancestors went through, Larsen said the creation of the honor tax is a powerful moment for the reservation.
"There's been so many policies and laws enacted to make sure tribes could not generate generational wealth. We can't own land. It's held in trust. We thought 'why would this be something somebody would support?' — but there are people," Larsen said.
The Morton-area tribe is hesitant to make grand plans for the funds when the amount of contributions they will receive is uncertain. First, they want to expand programs to keep youth busy and safe, Larsen said.
Wayne Ducheneaux, executive director of Native Governance, said he's proud their efforts inspired such a project. A lot of people write land acknowledgements, but seeing actionable steps from non-Native people is important, he said.
"She did a very good job putting that together and doing it the proper way, not assuming the tribe would want the support, not assuming she knew all the right answers," Ducheneaux said.
Already, people have reached out to Intermill expressing interest in creating similar programs for tribes near them. To do that, she stressed the importance of an existing relationship with a tribe based on trust — which takes time to build, she said.
While there are not enough Native people in Minnesota for all white people to have a close relationship with an Indigenous person, Intermill hopes that the honor tax can be a bridge that invites connection with the history of the land and an understanding of tribal sovereignty or government.
"This is a way for a person who is not near the reservation to come into relationship in a meaningful way that works for them, because they get to decide whatever amount, on whatever frequency they want to."