Following decades of wrangling and bureaucratic red tape, Ojibwe Band Members in Minnesota will be receiving payments as a result of illegal land deals that occurred 123 years ago. Band members at Mille Lacs, Fond du Lac, White Earth, Leech Lake, Bois Forte and Grand Portage will receive $300 each from a $20 million settlement that’s been sitting in a federal trust account since 1999. The checks will be distributed to Mille Lacs Band Members on Dec. 14, 2012.
The Nelson Act is named after Minnesota Congressman Knute Nelson who introduced legislation in 1889 that removed many of the state’s Ojibwe to the White Earth Reservation. The act also forced Ojibwe families to live on 80-acre land allotments, become farmers and abandon hunting and gathering traditions.
The goal of the federal government was assimilation and consolidation of American Indians during a period of racial tension following the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. The “surplus” land not assigned to Indian farmers was to be available for sale to non-Indians settlers and entrepreneurs from the logging, railroad and steel industries.
The Ojibwe at that time believed that the money from the land sale to non-Indians would be placed in trust by the U.S. Treasury and would benefit all Ojibwe in the state as a permanent trust fund. Instead, the sale and process were mismanaged, and the Ojibwe received far less in revenue than that actual worth of land and timber.
Individual land allotees didn’t fare much better. Schemes surfaced to defraud individuals from their land. By the early 1900s, much of the original Ojibwe reservation lands had been stolen from the allotees or their heirs through tax forfeit, minor sales or administrative sales. Timber was cleared and much land passed in a short time to non-Indian ownership.
In the late 1990s, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe successfully sued the federal government and agreed to the $20 million settlement, but the bands couldn’t agree on how to divide the money which grew to $28 million with interest. The division of funds was settled.
Then came the bureaucratic tangle from Washington. Congress had to pass legislation to authorize the distribution of money. Minnesota’s U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken introduced “The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Judgment Fund Distribution Act of 2011” to provide congressional authorization. Additionally, Rep. Collin Peterson and Rep. Chip Cravaak introduced companion legislation in the House.
Eventually the bill was signed by President Barack Obama, and the proceeds were forwarded to the bands.
The process to right a wrong from many years past has been complicated and lengthy, said Melanie Benjamin, Chief Executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. She added that it’s possible that no amount of money could replace the way of life that the Nelson Act removed from the Ojibwe. However, this is as close as the Tribe will get to restitution in today’s political climate. “There were many details to work out, with many parties involved,” she said. “But we are pleased that these first checks will be in the mail on December 14th.”