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Beltrami County Board: Red Lake asks two parcels be put in trust

Quentin Fairbanks remembers, as a kid, his father taking him to some high ground east of Ponemah on the Upper Red Lake shore and finding arrowheads and other artifacts.

Later in life, Red Lake Nation spiritual leader Tom Stillday took Fairbanks to the site, saying it was spiritual land used for ceremonies.

"It was devoid of anyone living there," Fairbanks, a Beltrami County commissioner who represents the Red Lake Reservation, told commissioners Tuesday. "It was used something like a church. This was part of the area that was the original campgrounds."

Now, the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians is requesting that the 11-acre site be put in federal trust as is the rest of the reservation. The tribe owns the land and has fee title to it, but it isn't part of the reservation.

The land is adjacent to reservation boundaries along the southern shore of Upper Red Lake in Shotley Township.

"This is a real good thing for the tribe," Fairbanks said. "It takes seven years to go into trust."

The land is considered religious and tribal ceremonial grounds. "Then land will not be developed," Fairbanks said.

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and the governor's office notified the county about the trust land application, and County Administrator Tony Murphy noted in his memo to commissioners that "the county has not received any direct communications from the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians."

That statement irked Commissioner Jim Heltzer, who said the band should have informed the county, rather than having to hear it through a federal agency.

"I consider it not to be very good diplomacy ," Heltzer said. "The leadership of the Red Lake Nation apparently doesn't view the county as relevant. They are a sovereign nation and we are insignificant, except when it comes to taking money out of the pockets of your constituents to pay for something."

Heltzer referred to social services programs that Beltrami County provides without reimbursement from the tribe, as its lands are not taxable.

Heltzer said he "wasn't crazy about it," since once the land is in trust, property taxes will stop flowing to the county. In 2010, the tax bill to Red Lake for the 11 acres is $1,526. He also asked if the tribe is current on its payments, and County Attorney Tim Faver, after checking with county staff, said, "Taxes are up to date on the parcel."

Fairbanks answered that the request involves "religious land, just like there's no taxation on a church."

Murphy also presented a second Red Lake Nation request just received by the county, asking for about an acre of land in Redby to be put in federal trust. The land was owned by a railroad which transported wood to and from a Redby sawmill. When the rails left, the land was ceded to the county.

"Most of those people are not paying their property taxes," Murphy said of the land in the reservation interior that should have been given to the tribe rather than to the county."

In that application for trust land status, the Red Lake Nation states the purpose of the land is for development of tribal home sites.

"That used to be the railroad to the sawmill, and should have been given to the tribe," Fairbanks said. "It's a reason some people don't pay their taxes, that the land should have gone to the tribe, not the county, when the railroad pulled out."

"People should pay their taxes -- I pay my taxes, my constituents pay their taxes," Heltzer said.

County Board Chairman Jack Frost's concern was that access to a Shotley Township road be continued once the land is in federal trust.

County Attorney Tim Faver said the status of the road continues as a legal road, but that any future disputes would have to be settled in federal court.

Fairbanks suggested that the county request swapping the road with tribal land elsewhere that would help connect county trails which now skirt the reservation boundary.

"We're not going to have a lot of choice in the matter anyway," Frost said, indicating that a final decision rests with the secretary of the Interior.

"There's no good reason why they (Red Lake) shouldn't communicate with us," Heltzer continued. "There can be better communications back and forth."

Murphy was given permission to answer questions that the BIA has over the parcels, but the board took no stand on the acquisition of trust land. The county has only until Monday to send the information to the governor's office for a compiled response to the BIA by Aug. 8.

Commissioner Jim Lucachick said he hoped the exchange of information and eventual report back to Red Lake "will serve as an olive branch for communications."