Restoring the Leech Lake homelands

Leech Lake band of Ojibwe logo. (Photo courtesy of Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe website)

Dalton Walker

The bill holds 11,760 acres of federal trust land for the tribe and heads to the president’s desk

Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

A decades-long wrong to the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe is one step closer to being undone.

Nearly 12,000 acres taken from the northern Minnesota tribe in the 1940s and 1950s may finally be returned under a bill headed to the president's desk.

The U.S. House unanimously passed the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Reservation Restoration Act on Thursday. Last year, the Senate approved the bill, so it now heads to the White House for final approval.

The bill directs the Chippewa National Forest to transfer 11,760 acres to the Interior Department to be held in trust for Leech Lake.

Leech Lake Chairman Faron Jackson said the bill's passage “helps restore a sense of justice that generations of Leech Lakers have worked to achieve” and provides space for future homes.

“Restoring this small portion of our homelands will enable us to combat the lack of housing and related problems that have been highlighted as urgent needs by the ongoing pandemic,” he said.

Leech Lake, known for its woodlands, lakes and wild rice, is one of seven Ojibwe bands in Minnesota. Its reservation was established through treaties and executive orders from 1855 to 1874, but the federal government “repeatedly” reduced the reservation since then, Jackson said.

In the '40s and '50s, the land was taken without consent from the tribe or individual allottees. The Bureau of Indian Affairs wrongly interpreted an Interior directive that led it to believe it had the authority to sell tribal land without consent, according to a Leech Lake news release.

Leech Lake holds the smallest percentage of reservation land of tribes in Minnesota. The county, state and federal government owns more than half of the original land, according to history of Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe listed on the tribe’s website.

“Of the 864,158 original acres, nearly 300,000 acres are surface area of the three big lakes,” according to the tribe’s website. “The National Chippewa Forest has the largest portion of the land. Seventy-five percent of the National Forest is within the reservation. This leaves less than 5 percent of land owned by the Band."

The Chippewa National Forest, established in 1908, manages 660,000 acres and shares almost 2,000 miles of boundary with Leech Lake.

It’s unclear if President Donald Trump will sign the bill before he leaves office in January. The White House didn’t immediately respond Friday for a request for comment by Indian Country Today. As part of his tribal nations plan, President-elect Joe Biden listed restoring tribal lands as an objective.

The new legislation was written by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum and U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, both Democrats from Minnesota. McCollum spoke on the House floor Thursday on the bill’s importance. Jackson thanked both McCollum and Smith.

“The tribal leaders of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe entrusted Sen. Smith and I with advancing this legislation that builds on their diligent work, open dialogue and collaboration with the Chippewa National Forest and local communications,” McCollum said in a statement. “With its passage, our federal government is taking a significant step toward addressing the historic injustices that robbed the Band of much of their reservation land.”

Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, White Earth Ojibwe, praised work by McCollum and Smith on her Twitter page.

“This is a historic victory for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and Indian Country,” she wrote.

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.

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