Norman Deschampe is president of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, which is based in Cass Lake, Minnesota.
Tomorrow, the House Natural Resources Committee will mark up H.R. 1272, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Judgment Fund Distribution Act of 2011. The legislation provides for a long-overdue distribution of $20 million appropriated in 1999 and held in trust on behalf of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe after a settlement and federal court judgment in favor of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe for federal misfeasance in implementing the Nelson Act of 1889.
The only party to the litigation, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (MCT), has embraced the distribution plan contained in H.R. 1272, with five of the six constituent bands – representing more than 80 percent of the membership – in support.
Chairman Arthur “Archie” LaRose of the dissenting band, Leech Lake, would have Congress and the public mistakenly believe that H.R. 1272 is an injustice and a threat to tribal sovereignty. His primary assertion is that Leech Lake incurred 68.9 percent of the damages in terms of land base lost, and therefore it should receive 68.9 percent of the compensation.
Contrary to the opinion expressed by Chairman LaRose, the bill to distribute the Nelson Act claim fund is completely consistent with the decision of the MCT’s governing body. When the Congress is doing what the MCT wants it to do, there is no threat to tribal sovereignty. This, in fact, is recognition of tribal sovereignty and respect for our decision-making process.
A number of Chairman LaRose’s arguments are invalid. First we must accept the fact that the Nelson Act eliminated the individual claims of the six bands. For better or worse, those bands legally ceded lands to the United States that were intended for the collective benefit of all of us. Some people wish that wasn’t the case, but it is. The Nelson Act changed the nature of our relationship with the federal government by creating a joint fund for the six bands.
In reality, this fact is a reason why the MCT, as a governing body, was able to bring the claims and reach a settlement with the federal government in 1999. The claims that we settled include both (1) claims of inadequate compensation for the land and timber sold under the authority of the Nelson Act and (2) claims that the federal government failed to account for and improperly spent.
This point brings me to the second reason why Chairman LaRose’s argument is invalid. The MCT’s claims of inadequate compensation were never calculated on a reservation-by-reservation basis. There was no reason to make a calculation since the Nelson Act created one joint fund for the six bands. Not to mention, it is entirely possible that the land and timber originating from some reservations was sold at full value, while the land and timber from other reservations was sold at a fraction of the full value. We can only speculate on that detail without a calculation.
The MCT’s claims of improper accounting and spending originally included a demand for calculation. The federal government indicated such an accounting would take 300 man years to complete. The MCT eventually relieved the government of the accounting obligation, which enabled us to reach our settlement in 1999.
Third, the bands that ceded land through the Nelson Act gave up 100 percent of their ownership. Again, while many people wish this wasn’t the case, each band lost what it had previously owned. The lost lands and timber caused anguish to all six bands. The degree of suffering could never directly correlate with the number of trees or acres lost, as Chairman LaRose seems to want.
Finally, when we settled the Nelson Act claims, we made absolutely clear that we preserved our rights to pursue other remedies related to the lands lost under the Nelson Act, and we also preserved our tribal treaty rights. Tribal sovereignty will be as intact after the passage of H.R. 1272 as it is today.
The MCT worked for decades to reach a settlement with the federal government on Nelson Act funds. It took another 10 years for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to confirm that the MCT was best suited to decide how to distribute the funds. Frankly, the MCT is pleased to have the opportunity at our doorstep to close a painful chapter in the history of the Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, Grand Portage, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs, and White Earth bands.
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