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Seeking a solution: LaRose says federal bill's compensation is unfair to band

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If Arthur "Archie" LaRose, chairman of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, has his way, a proposed bill to make amends for taking timber and land away from Minnesota tribal members will be put on hold.

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For LaRose, a delay to a 1999 settlement with the federal government is worth the wait to get the legislation right for the approximately 9,500 Leech Lake band members.

Currently, legislation is advancing in Washington to release $28 million, including interest, to the Fond du Lac, Bois Forte, Grand Portage, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs and White Earth bands of Chippewa.

Five of the six bands agree with the terms, which would provide $300 for individual enrolled members of the bands, along with almost $3 million to each of the six band governments.

The issue has roots in congressional passage of the Dawes Act of 1887 and the Nelson Act of 1889 that split up thousands of acres of what had been reservation land to individuals. Much of the land was purchased by the government, timber and railroad barons and non-Indians, leaving little within reservation boundaries actually controlled by the Chippewa.

Tribal historians said the effort was little more than a technically legal swindle of the Indian bands.

In 1999, a federal court agreed, awarding a $20 million Nelson Act settlement to be split between the six bands involved.

Since then, officials of the six bands were unable to agree on how the money should be divided.

Legislation to release the money is being pushed by Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Reps. Collin Peterson, D-Detroit Lakes, and Chip Cravaack, R-Minn.

"We need these funds released now,' said Norman DeSchampe, chairman of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, in testimony to a U.S. Senate committee earlier this month. "It's been too long, and our members are constantly asking about the Nelson Act claims."

Franken said Tuesday he agrees, which is why he co-sponsored the bill with Klobuchar.

"Ultimately, I felt it was time and so did my colleagues... that this is the time for the elders and tribes to get their money," Franken said.

The senator said he would have preferred unanimous consent from all six bands, but believes the bill is in the best interest of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

But LaRose said the proposed settlement is not good for the Leech Lake band.

"My ultimate goal is to kill the bill," said LaRose, who appeared at a Feb. 2 hearing for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. He will also testify Thursday in the House's Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs.

A complex history, including several treaties, dates back more than 123 years.

LaRose said other tribes previously negotiated and received compensation for much of the timber and land taken during westward expansion and the establishment of reservations. However, the Leech Lake band, which owns about 4 percent of its land, has yet to receive fair compensation, and the current federal legislation, aimed at compensating tribal members for the 19th century treaties, treats all tribes equally.

"It's unfortunate how we are where we are," said Frank Bibeau, the Leech Lake tribal attorney.

Tribal officials said the legislation is based on a 1999 settlement worth $20 million and addresses damages suffered by various Chippewa bands. The U.S. Justice Department and U.S. Court of Federal Claims acknowledged 68.9 percent of damages stem from the underevaluation of timber and mismanagement of lands on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation and lands taken to establish the Chippewa National Forest.

"The bill undermines and disrespects the damages," LaRose told the Pioneer. "We assumed the majority of the damages and should be compensated for it."

In a letter refuting a published news article, including in the Pioneer, LaRose said the U.S. took 600,000 acres from the Leech Lake Band for what was to be the band's permanent homeland under a treaty with the federal government.

"It's always sad when Indian tribes have to fight each other over scraps left to use after the government inflicts damage on our communities," wrote LaRose, adding the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe didn't exist when treaties were signed and it "should have no legitimate say in how our damages should be distributed."

Further, LaRose said Leech Lake is willing to negotiate with the five other bands but the current proposal is unacceptable and unfair.

In addition, LaRose said he wonders whether the Leech Lake tribe is jeopardizing future land claims by accepting terms of the Nelson Act. It's a question he's still trying to find the answer to.

Franken said he respects LaRose and knows his argument against the bill "very, very well."

Still, the senator said he believes passing the legislation needs to happen, even with LaRose and Leech Lake officials opposed to how money would be distributed.

"I'm sympathetic to his position, but I have to recognize tribal sovereignty," Franken said. "When you consider the tribal executive committee (for the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe), I don't think Archie is going to prevail.

"I feel like this is the proper thing to do."

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Steve Wagner
Grand Forks Herald Editor Steve Wagner can be reached at 701.780.1104 and swagner@gfherald.com. Prior to joining the Herald, Wagner worked at the Bemidji (Minn.) Pioneer and The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He also previously worked at newspapers in the Twin Cities and Iowa.
(701) 780-1104
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