More than 11,000 acres of land in Cass County will be returned to the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe after it was wrongly seized in the 1940s and 1950s.
The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed the Leech Lake Reservation Restoration Act on Thursday, which effectively returns 11,760 acres of Chippewa National Forest land to the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe by putting the land into a trust, with the land to be considered part of the band's reservation.
The Senate passed the bill unanimously in June 2019, so it's now headed to President Donald Trump for his signature.
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., who sponsored the bill in the Senate, tweeted about the bill's passage, saying this "historic win" belongs to the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, which put decades of work into getting their land back.
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat who represents Minnesota's 4th Congressional District and sponsored the House version of the bill said that restoring the land "will not only honor Tribal sovereignty, but it will allow the Leech Lake Band to invest in future generations and build more housing to accommodate the growing community."
“The tribal leaders of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe entrusted Sen. Smith and I with advancing this legislation that builds on their diligent work, open dialogue, and collaboration with the Chippewa National Forest and local communities,” McCollum said in a statement. "With its passage, our federal government is taking a significant step toward addressing the historic injustices that robbed the Band of much of their reservation land."
From 1948 to 1959, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs wrongly interpreted an order from the Department of the Interior, which led them to believe they had the authority to sell tribal land without the consent of the majority of landowners, the act says.
This practice ended in 1959 when the Secretary of the Interior advised the bureau that this practice was illegal and they had to stop.
As a result of this illegal practice, thousands of acres of land was taken from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and added to the Chippewa National Forest.
The band's land was reduced to just 5% of their initial reservation, giving it the smallest percentage of its original lands of any of the state's tribes.
In a statement, Leech Lake Tribal Chairman Faron Jackson called the passage of the bill a win for treaty rights and will allow the tribe to build more housing and address other problems, saying:
"The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Tribal Council and our entire community say chi-miigwech to Sen. Smith, Rep. McCollum, and everyone who helped this longstanding effort to pass the Leech Lake Reservation Restoration Act.
"Our Reservation was established through a series of treaties and executive orders from 1855 to 1874, which promised that it would serve as our permanent homeland. The United States violated these solemn promises repeatedly, reducing our trust lands to 5% of our initial Reservation. Additional lands were illegally transferred out of trust in the 1940s and 50s. The Leech Lake Restoration Act focuses on these illegal transfers by restoring 11,760 acres of our homelands to tribal trust status.
"Restoring this small portion of our homelands will enable us to combat the lack of housing and related problems that have been highlighted as urgent needs by the ongoing pandemic.
"We look forward to working with the Chippewa National Forest to finalize the plan of survey required under the Act to ensure that transferred lands address the immediate needs of the Band in keeping with the Forest Service’s policy of limiting fragmentation of federal land holdings.
"Passage of this bill helps restore a sense of justice that generations of Leech Lakers have worked to achieve. Our entire community rejoices today, and we again thank Senator Smith, Rep. McCollum and everyone that helped make this day a reality."
Nearly half of the Chippewa National Forest falls within the boundaries of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Reservation, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
The Chippewa National Forest, which was established in 1908, was the first national forest established east of the Mississippi River. The forest encompasses about 1.6 million acres and is home to more lakes and wetlands than any other national forest, the Forest Service says.