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Court won't rehear challenge to tribal land base
Friday, May 21, 2004

A federal appeals court has dealt another blow to a Minnesota county seeking to wipe most of the Mille Lacs Ojibwe Reservation off the map.

Officials from Mille Lacs County, who have spent more than $1 million in taxpayer funds on the case, asked the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals to rehear the dispute. But on Wednesday, the court denied the request.

The move sets up a possible appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has not heard a reservation diminishment case since the late 1990s. The county has up to 90 days to file its challenge.

In the meantime, an earlier ruling in favor of the tribe will stand. A three-judge panel of the appeals court said the county and a local bank lacked standing to bring the suit.

"The county board wasted nearly $1.3 million of taxpayers' money on this lawsuit at a time when its budget was under pressure from a sluggish economy," said Mille Lacs chief executive Melanie Benjamin in the tribal newspaper. The tribe, which owns two casinos, held a series of celebrations after the March 9 ruling.

The county claims the reservation is, at most, 4,000 acres in size. On the other hand, the tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs recognize a total of 61,000 acres.

The disagreement, according to the county, places a cloud over law enforcement, taxation and other issues. The bank says it shouldn't be subject to regulation by the tribe.

The appeals court rejected the claims as mere speculation. "Neither the county nor the bank has shown that it is in immediate danger of sustaining threatened injury traceable to an action of the band," wrote Judge Lavenski R. Smith.

The suit, however, was dismissed without prejudice, meaning it could be refiled in the future.

Minnesota attorney general Mike Hatch, a Democrat, sided with the county as did South Dakota attorney general Larry Long, a Republican. Both officials cited a 1998 Supreme Court ruling that reduced the size of the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.

Since then, the Supreme Court has refused to hear several tribal land cases. In recent years, officials from Connecticut and Idaho sought to reduce or limit the size of reservations in their state but were rebuffed by the high court.

Several states, including North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho and Connecticut, are currently backing the state of Rhode Island in a dispute involving the Narragansett Tribe. The states claim the tribe is forever limited to an 1,800-acre reservation.

A federal judge said tribe could increase its land base but the decision is being appealed to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals. The National Congress of American Indians and Native American Rights Fund have submitted an amicus brief in the tribe's favor.

Court Documents:
Decision in Mille Lacs v. Benjamin (March 9, 2004) | Denial of Rehearing (May 19, 2004) | Audio of Oral Arguments (October 24, 2003)

Relevant Links:
Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe -
NCAI/NARF Supreme Court Project -

Related Stories:
Minn. tribe wins another round in reservation dispute (03/10)

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