The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe — like all Indian tribes — is a sovereign Indian nation with its own laws and its own system of government. The treaties the Band signed with the U.S. government in the 1800s are still relevant today, defining our Reservation and giving us the right to hunt, fish, and gather throughout a large section of Minnesota.
A treaty is an agreement between two or more sovereign nations. It is like a contract. The federal government can make treaties with tribal governments without state approval.
In 1837, even before Minnesota was a state, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and several other tribes signed a treaty that ceded — or sold — land to the United States government. The tribes signed the Treaty of 1837 on the condition that they would still have the right to hunt, fish, and gather in the ceded territory.
The Treaty of 1837 was not properly upheld, as the State of Minnesota prosecuted Band members for violation of state conservation laws for many decades. In 1990, the Mille Lacs Band was ready to sue the state of Minnesota because too many Band members were being wrongly arrested for hunting and fishing in the ceded territory. But to avoid unnecessary and unpleasant confrontations, the Band tried to settle the issue out of court.
After a challenging negotiation process, the Band and the Minnesota executive branch of government reached a settlement. That settlement was later voted down by the Minnesota Legislature, which felt that the case should be settled in court.
In June 1994, the case went to court. In the first phase of the two-part trial, a federal judge ruled in favor of the Mille Lacs Band, saying Band members still had the right to hunt, fish, and gather on the ceded land. For the second phase, six other tribes that had also signed the treaty joined the Mille Lacs Band in the suit. In August 1997, a three-judge panel from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed the 1994 ruling.
On March 24, 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Treaty of 1837, saying that Mille Lacs Band members and members of the other tribes that signed the treaty can hunt, fish, and gather on the ceded land under tribal regulations.
Today’s Mille Lacs Band members, like their ancestors, are committed to protecting and preserving natural resources. That is why the Mille Lacs Band worked with the state of Minnesota to develop and implement a conservation code for the 1837 ceded territory. The conservation code requires Mille Lacs Band members to purchase licenses from the Band’s Department of Natural Resources before they can hunt and fish on public lands in the ceded territory. It also prohibits hunting on private land in the ceded territory unless it is forest crop land. Tribal members must obtain daily permits for all spearing and netting, and these activities are closely monitored by a conservation warden and/or a biologist.
Enforcement of the conservation code is coordinated by tribal officials, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, and conservation officers from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The Treaty with the Chippewa, which was signed on February 22, 1855, established the Mille Lacs Reservation as a permanent homeland for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
According to the treaty, the Mille Lacs Reservation comprised four fractional townships along the southwestern shore of Mille Lacs Lake: township 43N, range 27; and township 42N, ranges 25, 26, and 27; as well as the three islands in the southern part of the lake. The lands within the reservation comprise about 61,000 acres.
After the Dakota Conflict of 1862, in which Dakota Indians and some Ojibwe threatened and attacked non-Indian settlers in Minnesota, some Ojibwe reservations created in 1855 were ceded to the United States. But in recognition of the Mille Lacs Band’s assistance to the United States during the conflict, an 1863 treaty provided that the Mille Lacs Band could remain on its reservation.
Today, more than 2,000 Mille Lacs Band members call the Mille Lacs Reservation home, as well as thousands of others living elsewhere who feel a strong connection to their ancestral lands. Many non-Band members also live within the boundaries of the reservation.
The Band wants to live in harmony with its non-Indian neighbors and believes its efforts to preserve, enhance, and develop the economic potential of the Reservation benefit all Reservation residents.
In 2002, the Mille Lacs County Board of Commissioners filed a federal lawsuit against the Mille Lacs Band regarding the existence of the Reservation boundaries. The suit was dismissed by a series of lower courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.