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Legal Learning: Fond du Lac Band to swap land?

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From James H. Manahan, J.D. 

We all know that the United States Congress passed very little legislation in 2013. The Republican controlled House of Representatives voted nearly 50 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), but didn’t get around to doing much else. Only 65 laws were enacted by this “do-nothing Congress”, the least productive ever.

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One exception in the House of Representatives was a bill oddly named the “Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Non-Intercourse Act of 2013”. The Republicans and Democrats in the House got together in December and unanimously approved the bill – by voice vote. Here’s the story:

One hundred- sixty years ago (1854), two years after the big Sioux Uprising in southern Minnesota, the United States government entered into a treaty with the Chippewa Nation in our part of Minnesota. The treaty set aside 101,000 acres of land in Carlton County exclusively for the Fond du Lac Band Reservation. However, as happened so often with such treaties, the United States did not keep its end of the bargain. Homesteaders and others were wrongly allowed to settle on this land, taking ownership away from the Chippewa Band. Many of these settlers later failed to pay their real estate taxes, and eventually much of this land was forfeited to Carlton County.

An agreement has now been reached between Carlton County and the Chippewa Band to trade some 3,200 acres the county owns (tax-forfeited land) for 1,451 acres the band owns outside its reservation. The land exchange is of equal value on both sides. However, the deal requires the approval of Congress.

That’s where our newly-elected Congressman, Rick Nolan, comes in. Last July he introduced the bill to authorize the band to make the land exchange. His bill was referred to the Committee on Natural Resources, a hearing was held, and the bill was unanimously approved by the committee. In December the bill went to the floor of the House of Representatives and was unanimously approved. Now it has been sent to the Senate, where a companion bill sponsored by Sen. Al Franken has been referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs.

According to Rep. Nolan, this bill (if approved by the Senate and signed by President Obama) will allow the Chippewa Band space to construct much-needed housing for its 6,700 members, as well as expand land for traditional hunting and gathering. And Carlton County will have valuable new timber and forestry resources. The present checkerboard of ownership on the Reservation will be corrected, allowing both the Band and the County to effectively manage the lands they control. Nolan’s speech on the floor of the House can be watched at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJskK8-jPbQ&feature=c4-overview&list=UUmG...

I hope the U.S. Senate will soon get to work again, and approve this important legislation. It will, at least in part, help to rectify the broken treaty of 1854. It’s about time.

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota’s Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills, and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author.

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