A big topic of Thousand Lakes these days is the new signage for the “Thousand Lakes Indian Reserve” on Highways 47, 169 and other roads. The new signs mark the boundaries of the original 61,000-acre Thousand Lakes Reservation, the furthest on the maps, which is about 15 times the size of the “reservation” long recognized by tribal members, by non-Indian Minnesotans. and by the leaders and agencies of state government.
Travelers heading north on the highway. 169 might wonder “what’s going on” when they see the new sign near Onamia, given the many years of “reservation” signs above the outlet of the River Rum in the Vineland area. This change is a big deal, raising a lot of legitimate questions.
An Indian reservation, like tribal trust lands, is a legal “Indian country”, with many laws constantly changing. Thousand Lakes County government officials acknowledged the importance of this issue in their recent letter to Governor Tim Walz and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, asking them to make their position clear and address citizens’ concerns. .
Last year, Walz and Ellison announced that they adopted the largest Indian reservation in the Thousand Lakes. So, like many others, I expected the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to eventually change the signs, which they did in early January.
Be aware that state officials, regardless of their branch of government, cannot create or resurrect an Indian reservation. But they can play politics. Will they defend the interests of the state and the citizens when they are challenged? Or will they bow to politics, support the political and legal agendas of modern tribal governments, and avoid major issues impacting local, county and state governments, as well as the interests of tribal and non-tribal citizens?
Every two years, MnDOT prints a new official Minnesota state highway map. With the exception of a brief and controversial period in 2007-08, these official maps have long depicted the “Thousand Lakes Indian Reservation” as the several thousand acres of land in trust in the Vineland and Grand Casino area. While this land in trust is technically not a reserve, it is legal Indian country like an Indian reservation. And for many decades, the people of Mille Lacs – tribal registrants and non-Indians – unofficially called it “the Ground”.
The latest official Minnesota state highway map, the 2019-2020 version, does not show the largest “reservation” as the new signs indicate. But the map of Minnesota on the MnDOT website now shades the northern Mille Lacs County areas of the Isle Harbor, South Harbor, and Kathio townships as an Indian reservation. For many generations, most of the people of northern Mille Lacs County – including Isle, Cove, Wahkon, Onamia, and neighboring rural areas – never believed they lived on an Indian reservation. Of course, many now have legitimate concerns.
Many wonder what would change if the courts ruled in favor of the Thousand Lakes Band. There are many questions about natural resource management, environmental law, property values, law enforcement authorities, etc. And the question of “what reserve” is very important.
Politicians, academics and others insist that officials and decision-makers be accountable and transparent. But these requests are often selective, exempting certain officials and groups. Is there a principle in politics, government, academics, and journalism that exempts powerful modern tribal governments from accountability and transparency? No.
Many federal and state dollars go to tribal governments. Who works with whom, where and on what questions the public deserves answers.
One conclusion: MnDOT’s new reservation signs, the “what reservation” question, possible future impacts, and the relationship between state and federal officials with modern tribal governments are important things. Registered tribals and non-Indians deserve to know what is going on.
Guest columnist Joe Fellegy studies the history of the Lac Mille Lacs region.