It was a surreal confluence of events for Faron Jackson Sr. Stuck inside his home on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota with COVID-19, the tribal chairman watched as Congress voted to expand the boundaries of the reservation by 11,760 acres.
His small quarantined world would soon be expanding, spilling out onto forest land dotted with lakes, streams and towering pine trees that the government illegally seized from his tribe more than 70 years ago.
“It’s been devastating,” said Jackson, who has led Leech Lake and its roughly 10,000 enrolled members through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. “But to have some of this jubilant news, it lifts our spirits.”
Jackson said the recent unanimous passage of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Reservation Restoration Act by the House and Senate is a first step in reversing more than 100 years of injustices against Native Americans in his community and across the nation. It’s a community now suffering disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 infections.
The legislation is now on its way to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it.
“It’s a civil rights issue,” said U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, the St. Paul Democrat who sponsored the legislation in the House. “It’s an acknowledgment that what the federal government did to the Leech Lake Band was wrong. This is a wrong, and this is an opportunity to right that wrong.”
The Leech Lake band says it owns the smallest percentage of its original reservation of any of the state’s tribes, in part because so much of it is covered by lakes, streams, wetlands and the federally designated Chippewa National Forest.
But the government also reneged on its original treaties with the band, some of which date back as far as 1855. The original reservation covered nearly 600,000 acres in northern Minnesota, but federal policies passed in the late 1800s and early 1900s took about 530,000 acres out of trust status without the consent of the tribe.
Then, in 1948, the Bureau of Indian Affairs misinterpreted an order to mean that the Department of the Interior had the authority to make “secretarial transfers,” or sell tribal allotments without their consent. That went on until 1959, when attorneys in the department said the sales were illegal and must be stopped. By then, 17,000 additional acres had been illegally taken from the tribe.
Until now, the government hadn’t given any of it back.
“Over time it was whittled away and whittled away, so they now have a mere fraction of the land they originally had,” said U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, a Democrat who carried the bill in the Senate. “It’s a really important step in the right direction after many, many steps in the wrong direction.”
The band had a tough task in building support as it worked with local governments, electric utilities and co-ops to settle possible right-of-way disputes. The nearly 12,000 acres being returned are all within the boundaries of Cass County and the Chippewa National Forest. It doesn’t include any private cabins, campgrounds or lodges.
LeRoy Staples Fairbanks, a member of the Leech Lake Tribal Council, said stakeholder groups made compromises to get a deal. In the end, he said, the process made tribal governments more visible in the region and state.
“If you’re thinking about the pendulum of treaties and reservations, you’re starting to rebuild and legitimize tribal governments again, and this is a huge part of that,” he said. “This is a huge part of reclaiming what we are and who we are. Land is a big part of who we are. Land is culture.”
Under the trust of the federal government, huge portions of the Chippewa National Forest were cleared out, but the band will maintain the land and use it for traditional harvesting, said Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University who lives on the reservation.
“It is a major win because it’s going to reclassify a big chunk of that land,” he said.
Some land could be used for tribal housing, council leaders said. Poverty and few affordable living options have led to crowding on many reservations. It’s even more challenging at Leech Lake, where much of the land is not usable.
After the bill is signed by the president, the band has 180 days to work with federal officials to draw the exact boundaries of the land that’s being returned. Staples Fairbanks said he knows the work isn’t done yet, but he couldn’t hold back his excitement after the House passed the bill.
He logged on to his Facebook page for the first time in months and posted, “Congratulations Leech Lake.”
“There’s so much worry about [COVID-19] cases increasing and other things, we all needed something that is going to take our mind off it for a short while,” he said.