This year has been as trying for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe as for other Minnesotans. But even with a pandemic and economic troubles that have hit its members hard, the tribe can celebrate the righting of a historic wrong.
Congress has moved to restore nearly 12,000 acres wrongly taken by the federal government from the tribe in a series of moves dating back to the late 1940s. The act, carried by Minnesota Democrats Sen. Tina Smith and Rep. Betty McCollum, has been sent to President Donald Trump, who has indicated he will sign it.
"It is a ray of hope in what has been such a dark year," Smith told an editorial writer. In addition to the expansion of much-needed land that can be used for housing and other purposes, she said, "there is the symbolic importance of having their sovereignty recognized and their treaty agreements restored even to a small degree."
Smith noted that much of the band's current land is not easily accessible for housing or economic development. The Chippewa National Forest land being transferred could be used for those purposes.
Smith said that tribal leaders deserve much of the credit for smoothing the way for congressional action by working with Cass County officials, the forest service and several rural electrical cooperatives to produce an agreement all could live with.
"The Leech Lake band has used long-term diplomacy to resolve issues with the Forest Service and surrounding communities," Smith said. "This was truly a joint effort. It just shows that lots of things can get done here if you just pay attention and make it a priority."
Eighth District Republican Rep. Pete Stauber, who represents the area, was among those who publicly supported the bill and the tribe's efforts.
In an earlier interview with the Star Tribune, Leech Lake Tribal Council representative LeRoy Staples Fairbanks said that "in a perfect world, we would ask the federal government for every inch of Leech Lake reservation to go back to its rightful owners." He acknowledged that was unrealistic due to land exchanges and ownership changes. "But the closer we get to resolidifying this land base and righting wrongs, the closer we move toward reconciliation."
It is long since time that the first people of this land were given their legal due. One of the biggest victories came earlier this year, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in McGirt v. Oklahoma that much of eastern Oklahoma is actually Creek nation tribal land. The ruling, which was tied to the prosecution of a tribal member, did not go so far as to change land ownership, but was considered a major victory for tribal sovereignty and a precedent that affirmed the federal government's obligations to uphold treaties.
In writing the majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch said, "Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law. Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word."
Now comes congressional action that further affirms that it is never too late to address historic wrongs. Each step moves this country closer to its ideals of equality and justice for all.