Saturday, April 20th, 2024

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Saturday, April 20th, 2024

Breaking News for

Sportsmen Since 1967

Red Lake-area residents in Minnesota work to fend off tribal land-transfer bills

Legislation introduced in the Minnesota Legislature would transfer to Red Lake Nation land east of the reservation (up to a one-mile buffer on Upper Red’s east side), along with state-administered lands on Red Lake State Forest. (Image by Google Maps)

Kelliher, Minn. — While legislation that would at no cost transfer state land around Upper Red Lake to Red Lake Nation lies in wait at the State Capitol, counties, townships, organizations, and individuals in the area are mobilizing in an attempt to stave off such action.

As of Outdoor News press time, hearings hadn’t been scheduled for either the House or Senate bills, sponsored respectively by Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis, and Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton. Both bills were introduced last month.

In the meantime, plans to thwart the legislation have been nonstop, according to Robyn Dwight, president of the Upper Red Lake Area Association, typically a nonprofit group committed to promoting the northern Minnesota area and completing projects for the region’s benefit. Of late, the focus has shifted to protecting the interests of tourists, local businesses, private landowners, and others.

“It’s absolutely imperative that we block this bill,” Dwight said. 


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The effort began, publicly, with a community meeting March 19 in the Waskish area. Since then, Dwight said, the campaign has included, among other things, communicating with elected officials, seeking legal aid, educating the public, and finding funding for all the efforts might entail.

An April 20 public meeting is planned for 2 p.m. at the Kelliher school gym, at which, according to the meeting announcement, the purpose will be to “gather and share information about (the bills, HF 4780 and SF 5080) and to express our deep concern over the divisive and destructive consequences of ‘land-back’ efforts in the Upper Red Lake area and our communities.”

The legislation directed at Upper Red Lake comes on the heels of another proposal from Kunesh that would transfer state-owned lands within 155,000-acre White Earth State Forest, which includes portions of three counties, to White Earth Nation. That Senate bill received a hearing, and was tabled thereafter a month ago.

The Red Lake legislation would transfer ownership of state lands within Red Lake State Forest to Red Lake Nation. It also would “convey to the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians for no consideration all state-owned land and real property (that the DNR administers) within one mile from the lakeshore of the portion of Upper Red Lake that is in state ownership.”

In December, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council – the official liaison between tribal nations in Minnesota and the state of Minnesota – during an “emergency executive meeting,” voted 8-0 to “fully support the efforts of the Red Lake Nation to enforce the terms of the 1889 agreement (between the band and the federal government) as intended by the Red Lake chiefs through the pursuit of state legislation to return the state-owned lands around Upper Red Lake.”

The resolution was signed by Robert L. Larsen, the chair of the council, and Robert Deschampe, vice chair of the group. The document states that the Red Lake Tribal Council “requested a resolution from the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council to support the Red Lake Nation’s efforts to obtain the return of the entire Upper Red Lake, plus a one-mile buffer of land around the portion of the Upper Lake.”

Dwight said a letter-writing campaign has so far been central to local efforts to kill legislation that, they say, would cripple the community. Elected officials – those representing the area, whether state or federal, and bill authors as well as Gov. Tim Walz – have been the recipients.

Should either Red Lake bill be scheduled for a hearing, she said, a lengthy list of those who testify against it has been compiled.

Further, the URLAA is working with White Earth-area counties and individuals to develop a coalition that would address challenges to land ownership in coming years.

“We need a way to protect ourselves,” Dwight said, calling the legislation directed at both locations “toxic.”

Meanwhile, some local elected officials have begun to line up in opposition to the Red Lake bills. Among them is Sen. Steve Green, an enrolled member of White Earth Nation and Republican from Fosston who represents state citizens in both the White Earth and Red Lake areas. In late March, Green issued a press release regarding the matter.

“Once again, the same metro legislator who brought forward the White Earth land transfer (legislation) is attempting to get another land transfer bill pushed through,” he wrote. “Like previous bills brought forward by this author, I was not consulted on a piece of legislation that would greatly affect my district. Members of my district that would be affected weren’t even informed that this bill would be submitted. That isn’t the way things should be done.

“I find this recurring theme alarming,” the release says. “Senators keep introducing bills that infringe on people’s property and their rights, and they’re bringing forward these bills without discussing them with the very people who will be most affected. People are getting blind-sided by bad bills. It’s wrong.

“This bill was not heard in committee before legislative deadlines. But as we saw last year, deadlines are seen as suggestions,” he wrote.

Rep. Matt Bliss, a Republican from Pennington, recently suggested in correspondence with a constituent that while the Red Lake bills do not currently seem to have momentum, “We will need to remain vigilant as this can be resurrected at any time until we gavel out of session in May.”

Local officials, too, are warning of the unraveling the legislation could create in the Red Lake area. Dave DeNoyer, a supervisor in Shotley Township, located on the south shore of Upper Red Lake, penned a note to Gov. Walz on behalf of the town board, laying out its concerns.

DeNoyer’s letter points out the recreational value of the land in question, from hunting to hiking and more, and addresses the potential loss of forest revenue, an important income source for the township, Beltrami County, and the Kelliher School District.

“Upper Red Lake draws fishermen and women from all over the Midwest,” he wrote. “The state revenues flourish from all the trucks, cars, boats, ice houses, tackle, ATVs, snowmobiles, bait, gas tax and more that is spent on recreation.”

It’s also causing rift in the local community, DeNoyer adds.

“What you are doing (via the legislation) is dividing our community, dividing old friendships, causing dissension, mistrust. … You have single-handedly created a new generation of mistrust and deceit. … This is not the ‘One Minnesota’ the governor promised.”

For its part, Red Lake Nation issued a “fact sheet” late last month regarding the legislation.

Among the points mentioned: Non-Indians will still be free to use the portion of Upper Red Lake that is currently available for fishing and other uses; non-Indians will be able to obtain hunting permits through Red Lake (Nation) to hunt on the tribe’s off-reservation restored ceded lands; non-Indians will still be able to obtain permits to fish in the small lakes on the Red Lake Reservation; privately-owned homes, farms, and businesses will not be impacted by the legislation.

Unlike other reservations in Minnesota, Red Lake is “closed.” According to the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, that means, “The tribal government has full sovereignty over the reservation, subject only to the federal government. … Because the land is held in common, few non-members live at Red Lake.”

Whether or not the Red Lake legislation moves forward, Dwight said the manner in which it came about is upsetting to her group and area residents.

“It was not transparent, there was no due process, and there was no discussions of the ramifications,” she said.

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