Skip to main content

Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

A federal judge upheld the treaty rights for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Friday.

U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson issued a 93-page decision on Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe v. County of Mille Lacs that affirms the reservation’s boundaries are those laid out in the 1855 treaty, and the band retains sovereign law enforcement authority. The Minnesota federal court judge cited the large body of federal Indian law that supports tribal sovereignty.

Mille Lacs County said it plans to appeal the ruling, according to reporting by MPR News.

The lawsuit stemmed from an opinion and protocol issued in 2016 by Mille Lacs County Attorney Joseph Walsh. He maintained that the reservation established in the 1855 treaty had been diminished or disestablished by later treaties, laws and agreements.

“It is our sincere hope that this decision will allow us to move beyond the need to fight with Mille Lacs County over our very existence; instead we invite the county – and all of our local governments – to come alongside us and join with us in the fight for a better future for all of our communities for generations to come,” said Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin in a press release on March 5 as reported by Red Lake News. The Mille Lacs reservation is located in east central Minnesota.

"This ruling affirms what Shaboshkung began fighting for in the 1860's, what every leader since has carried on, and what we have always known – that our reservation was never diminished, that we are non-removable, and this reservation will be our home into perpetuity," Benjamin said.

Walsh had said the band didn’t have the right to enforce laws on most of its 61,000-acre reservation and its enforcement didn’t extend to non-members of the Mille Lacs Band. Rather he said the band could practice law enforcement only on the 3,600 acres of reservation lands held in trust by the federal government.

Walsh said investigations by tribal police likely would not pass muster in state courts. So he directed county staff to take over law enforcement from band officers. Calls for service to the band police department were to be handled by the county sheriff’s office, the protocol said. Violations of the protocol by band officers could “constitute obstruction of justice and the unauthorized practice of a law enforcement officer,” Walsh said.

The tribe filed suit in federal court in 2017, saying the county kept Mille Lacs tribal police from policing within reservation boundaries and interfered with their sovereign law enforcement authority. The tribe cited threats of arrest and prosecution of band officers as well as instructions to county deputies not to arrest suspects apprehended by tribal police.

Band officers said county police repeatedly interrupted them in the course of their work, for instance, telling them to leave crime scenes. Tribal police said county officers interrupted them during questioning and interviews with suspects and witnesses, and demanded they turn over evidence to them. Band officers said county deputies refused to accept their reports and would re-interview witnesses and suspects.

In the lawsuit, the tribe said the county undermined tribal policing and prevented band officers from practicing their profession, which led to poor morale and resignations.

“It was insulting, demeaning, threatening .... (and) terrible,” said Band Sergeant Derrick Naumann.

Band Sergeant Craig Nguyen told the court people knew tribal officers didn’t have law enforcement authority, which "increased the drug availability…and the gang activity also increased."

ICT logo bridge

3/14: This story has been updated to include Mille Lacs County's plan to appeal the ruling

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help Indian Country Today carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.