Minnesota's top elected officials made it clear this week that they're siding with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in a long-standing and often emotional dispute with county leaders over the reservation's boundaries.
The band maintains its reservation consists of 61,000 acres that were identified in the 1855 Treaty. Mille Lacs County officials say the reservation is a fraction of that — about 4,000 acres. The two sides are fighting it out in federal court.
But for the moment, tribal officials relish the idea that Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and Gov. Tim Walz agree with them. County officials say they are disappointed by what they see as a "180-degree reversal" by the state.
Ellison, in a written statement Friday, acknowledged that some state officials in the past have expressed different positions from what he now cites.
"But those positions did not take into account recent legal developments," Ellison said. "The State's current position is consistent with the federal government's interpretation."
In 2015, the Office of the Solicitor in the U.S. Department of the Interior concluded that the reservation established by the 1855 Treaty remained intact. It affirmed that position two years later in a letter to the Mille Lacs County attorney.
"The county's assertion that the Band's reservation has been diminished or disestablished has no basis in law and conflicts with the federal government's longstanding position," the letter states.
The Minnesota Attorney General's Office, in its own legal review of the dispute, cited both of those opinions in a motion filed this week asking the Ramsey County District Court to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Mille Lacs County officials. In that lawsuit, county officials are asking the state to pay the legal fees in their federal dispute with the band. The motion was first reported by the Pioneer Press.
But Minnesota officials argue the state isn't on the hook for the legal fees, in part because the county attorney and county sheriff are not state employees. Moreover, the idea that county officials say their position is consistent with state policy concerning the boundaries of the reservation is incorrect, state attorneys argue.
"While state officers have, at points in the past, stated their position that the size of the Reservation was diminished, these statements … neither reflect the current nor the official position of the state," the motion notes.
Walz said he agreed with Ellison's legal analysis.
"The Attorney General's action brings clarity to the state's position on the boundaries of the Mille Lacs reservation and is consistent with the federal government's view," the governor said in a statement.
County officials were disappointed the state would "reverse a position supported by both Republican and Democratic administrations and by a succession of attorneys general," said Randy Thompson, an attorney representing Mille Lacs County in the federal lawsuit.
But tribal officials don't believe the state has had a consistent, clear position on the issue, said Marc Slonim, an attorney for the band.
"This is the first time, to my knowledge, that there's been a legal analysis in quite a while," he said. "It's significant."
So much so, that Melanie Benjamin, the band's chief executive, said it will go down in history. "With this court filing, it is now the position of the United States, the State of Minnesota and the Band that the 1855 Reservation still exists," she wrote on Facebook. "While the State's acknowledgment that our Reservation still exists changes nothing for our non-Indian neighbors and friends, it has great meaning for our people."
County officials, however, are concerned about what they might lose if the boundary established by the 1855 Treaty is recognized. It includes the southern portion of Lake Mille Lacs, Thompson said.
"If the reservation still exists, the federal government will have jurisdiction throughout the reservation, and the band could claim expanded jurisdiction, while the jurisdiction of the county and state would be diminished," he said.
Slonim countered that, saying: "We have no plans to do anything to anybody. We just want people to leave us alone. The tribe's ancestors fought to stay on this reservation for decades. And it was not easy. Their homes were burned, they were described as pests and harassed. Their lands were taken away from them and they were essentially reduced to poverty. … From generation to generation it was passed down that you have to fight for this reservation."