Mille Lacs Indian Reservation FAQ’s

Misinformation and rumors abound on what the existence of the 1855 Mille Lacs Reservation means for Band members and non-Indians who live inside the borders. Please take the opportunity to learn the facts and share them with friends and neighbors at every opportunity.

The Mille Lacs Indian Reservation was established in an 1855 Treaty as the “permanent home” of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. According to the Treaty, the Reservation “embrace[s]” four fractional townships on the south and southwest sides of Mille Lacs Lake (specifically, Isle Harbor, South Harbor and North and South Kathio) as well as three islands in the southern part of the lake. The Band believes this includes the southwest portion of the lake itself.

There is a dispute between the Band and Mille Lacs County regarding the Reservation. The Band asserts the Reservation’s original boundaries remain intact while the County asserts they were disestablished after 1855.

U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson ruled on Friday, March 4, 2022 that the Reservation has not been disestablished or diminished since its 1855 creation and that the Treaty of 1855 promised the Mille Lacs Band a “permanent home,” and other treaties and laws since didn’t change that. “Over the course of more than 160 years, Congress has never clearly expressed an intention to disestablish or diminish the Mille Lacs Reservation,” the Judge said. “The court therefore affirms what the Band has maintained for the better part of two centuries — the Mille Lacs Reservation’s boundaries remain as they were under Article 2 of the Treaty of 1855.”

The Judge’s ruling has raised questions regarding the meaning of the Reservation’s boundaries for non-Indians within the Reservation. The Band has prepared this Q&A sheet to address some of these questions.

Does the existence of the Reservation affect title to land?

No. The existence of the Reservation has no effect on land ownership or title. As a result of federal policies in the late 1800s, most lands within the Reservation are owned by non-Indians. The State itself is one of the largest landowners within the Reservation.

This is not unusual. Non-Indian population and land ownership on reservations generally exceed Indian population and land ownership. For example, a 1978 Supreme Court case involved a reservation in the State of Washington with a population of 2,928 non-Indians and only 50 tribal members. In 1998, the Court noted that as of 1977 the Leech Lake Band and its members owned less than 5% of the land within the Leech Lake Reservation.

Can the Mille Lacs Band tax non-Indian land or non-Indians within the Reservation?

No. Although the Band has some taxation authority on its own lands, the Band has no authority to tax non-Indian lands within the Reservation or the activities of non-Indians on non-Indian lands. In 2001, the Supreme Court stated that “[a]n Indian tribe’s sovereign power to tax - whatever its derivation - reaches no further than tribal land.”

Can the Mille Lacs Band prosecute non-Indians in the Band’s court?

No. The United States Supreme Court held in 1978 that tribes have no criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians. Congress has since authorized tribes to exercise limited authority to prosecute non-Indians for domestic violence offenses, but the Band has not exercised that authority. The Band does have authority to investigate violations of law by non-Indians within the Reservation under federal, state and tribal law, but offenders can only be prosecuted in state or federal court.

Can the Band zone or regulate the use of non-Indian lands within the Reservation?

No. Under federal law, the Band does not have (and does not claim) authority to zone or regulate the use of non-Indian lands within the Reservation. The County Attorney recognized this in an opinion issued in 2000.

Can local governments (such as counties, cities and townships) zone or regulate the use of non-Indian lands within the Reservation?

Yes. The existence of the Reservation does not limit local zoning or land use authority on non-Indian lands.
Does the federal government have authority over non-Indians within the Reservation?

Yes, to a limited extent. The federal government administers certain environmental laws within Indian reservations. This has been the case within the Mille Lacs Reservation for many years.

Does the existence of the Reservation limit access to or regulation of fisheries in Mille Lacs Lake?

No. Non-Indians have access to the lake through public access sites and private lands (such as resorts). As noted above, the existence of the Reservation does not affect land ownership and so has no effect on lake access. Nor does existence of the Reservation affect regulation or management of fisheries.