Opinion editor's note: Star Tribune Opinion publishes a mix of national and local commentaries online and in print each day. To contribute, click here.


Friday afternoon featured a rally at the Minnesota State Capitol that was advertised as a political demonstration against a pair of bills presently before the Legislature. HF 4780/SF 5080 would give state-owned land within one mile of Upper Red Lake back to the Red Lake Band. HF 4304/SF 3480 would give the White Earth Band first option to buy tax-forfeited land.

There was a small crowd on the main floor of the rotunda. About a hundred people came from different parts of the state to hear four or five speakers. Many wore brown T-shirts that said "Public Land Owner" on them, apparently reflecting their feelings of personal ownership and affection for state-owned land near their own. Conversations with several of these citizens revealed their strong personal ties in the nearby communities of Mahnomen and Waskish.

The emcee announced the presence of quite a number of organizations, ranging from the Izaak Walton League to Ducks Unlimited. Some of the people attending may have belonged to those organizations but did not represent them in any official capacity. None of them actually spoke about the bills before the Legislature. Most of them spent their five minutes talking about their dogs and how nice it is to get outside.

Also present were two dozen or so tribal members, primarily from the Red Lake Band. Their ages ranged from 6 months to 70-plus years. They didn't have any materials to hand out, and they didn't yell at or jostle anyone. Two of their Red Lake Band Flags were up, reminding people that they were here first and aren't going away.

After the hour set aside for the rally was over, the rally organizers announced what sounded like free beer at a brewery somewhere, without giving directions. The natives passed on that invitation. So did I. I hope the folks that went there remembered they had a long drive to get home again that night.

If you care enough to actually read the bills, you'll see the one about Upper Red Lake talks about giving state-owned land in the Red Lake State Forest that is within one mile of the shoreline of Upper Red Lake — only the land that is already owned by the state — to the Red Lake Band. The bill about the area over by Mahnomen says that the White Earth Band should get first chance to purchase tax-forfeited land when it goes up for sale. (Click on the legislation hyperlinks near the beginning of this article or Google "Minnesota Senate File 5080″ or "Minnesota House File 4304″ to actually read the bills instead of just going by whatever gets thrown out by someone needing another beer to get through the day.)

The thing most people don't understand about the Upper Red Lake boundary is that the history of the Red Lake Band's ownership of their land is different from what happened with most of the Indian lands after the Dawes Act of 1887 and the Nelson Act of 1889. The idea of these laws was to break down the tribes and bring in more white people by giving out small parcels to a few of the Indians and then selling off the "surplus" to whites. The lumber people also wanted to move all the Indians further west onto less valuable land.

The Red Lake Band refused to allow this "allocation" process and kept the tribe as the land owner rather than see its land broken up into individual small parcels.

The most contentious part of all this is that the Red Lake Band holds that their agreement defined their final reservation boundary as including a minimum of a one mile from the shorelines of Red Lake. This treaty was supposed to become the "Nelson Act of 1889." The problem is that Minnesota's representative, Knute Nelson, took both of the original signed documents back to St. Paul with him. And they were lost or otherwise destroyed. Unlike with other treaties, there is no original document anywhere to be found. It's an article of faith for the Red Lake Band that Nelson tore off the upper right corner of the originals. Likewise, the Nelson Act, as made into law, is bedrock to the white folks. All indications are that neither side will ever agree with the other on this point. Whether or not any sort of agreement can ever be made on this issue is uncertain.

People tend to believe they have a god-given right to as much as they ever had, and probably a good bit more.

The argument from the white folks in Waskish is that the Nelson Act specified the eastern boundary line as north and south from a point one mile east of a spot on Lower Red Lake. This results in a line bisecting the eastern part of the Upper Red. This leaves the town of Waskish (population 94) in private ownership, along with fewer than 120 homes and summer cabins and a few small farms. There's also a public access point and a park presently owned by the state that Waskish residents and business owners rely on — many of them for their livelihoods.

The Red Lake Band has been adamant about its retention of the right to all land within one mile of the lake. The entire lake itself is indisputably an essential part of the band's creation story and religious faith. Band members also feel very strongly about their treaty rights, regardless of what happened down in St. Paul more than 100 years ago. They've been putting up with the sewage and trash that gets left by all those white people using the east half of what they view as their lake.

Within the past year, Waskish residents say they have been making their own organized efforts to remedy the trash and sewage issues. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources isn't much help — there are only two conservation officers for the whole division.

Waskish residents are scared of what would happen to their homes and livelihoods if the Red Lakers regain control of any part of what they owned. Underneath this is what seems to be a sensitivity to the notion that "someday the Indians just might do to us what got done to them."

Red Lake Reservation is a "closed" reservation. This means it's not open to the general public, and if you don't belong there, they don't want you there. And they can make you leave.

What will this mean to the people already living on land within that mile of the eastern shore of Upper Red Lake? Some of them have been there for three generations and don't have any interest in going elsewhere.

It should also be understood that the Red Lake Band used to occupy and control the land running clear to the western edges of the Red River Valley. The band had a northern paradise of game, timber and wild rice. Then it was overrun by thousands upon thousands of strangers using new germs, big guns and a singular belief in their own right to whatever they could grab.

And the white people feel they've been following the rules, so their rights are carved in stone too.

Whether a buyout like what happened with private owners in what became the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness will ever be feasible remains to be seen. If the Red Lakers could have a source of income comparable to the Mystic Lake, Grand or Treasure Island casinos — maybe. This state's taxpayers are tolerating the extension of fiber-optic internet at their expense rather than letting the free market allocate its cost for all the people choosing to live remotely. Maybe they'll decide it really would be fair to come closer to resolving this conflict with the lubricant of money.

Dave Porter has lived in Baudette, Minn., and on the Lower Leech Lake Reservation. He currently lives in Minneapolis.