Red Lake Nation takes steps to restore east boundary of Upper Red Lake

Red Lake Nation leaders are making a concerted effort to restore boundaries to include the entirety of Upper Red Lake, for which roughly 60% resides within the band’s borders.

Red Lake Nation - Upper Red Lake map.jpg
Red Lake Nation leaders hope to restore the tribe's boundaries to include the entirety of Upper Red Lake since only around 60% of the lake currently resides within the band’s borders.
Map by Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

RED LAKE — The present-day boundaries of the Red Lake Nation have been contested for more than a century.

Now tribal leaders are making a concerted effort to restore boundaries to include the entirety of Upper Red Lake, for which roughly 60% resides within the band’s borders.

Doing so is a way for the tribal council to “right a historical wrong” that occurred during treaty negotiations in 1889, according to Red Lake Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki Sr.

“The unlawful taking of a portion of Upper Red Lake stems from the fraud and deception on the part of the United States in negotiating the 1889 agreement with the Red Lake chiefs after the band successfully resisted the allotment act of lands at Red Lake,” Seki said during a state of the band address on March 10 in Redby.

The Dawes Act of 1889 was intended to aid assimilation by dividing communal tribal land into smaller household-size land plots for farming and private ownership. Once each head of household was allocated 160 acres of land, the remaining land would be made available for sale to non-Native Americans.


“The arbitrary allotment was done without consideration to the nature or type of lands, and not all lands were suitable for cultivation,” Red Lake Nation’s website reads. “The end result deprived Native Americans of millions of acres of traditional territory.”

Despite ceding tracts of land to the United States, the band maintained control of its central portion of land. The nation formerly encompassed 3.2 million acres in 1889 before ceding 2.9 million acres to households registered under the Dawes Act.

This left Red Lake Nation with roughly 300,000 acres including all of Lower Red Lake and the western portion of Upper Red Lake. During negotiations, Seki detailed that Red Lake hereditary chiefs drew a line surrounding the entirety of both Upper and Lower Red Lakes on an 1889 Rand McNally map, over which Red Lake Nation would retain full sovereignty.

However, Seki claimed that the map, presented by government officials in St. Paul after negotiations with Red Lake, did not include the aforementioned outline and instead depicted a line that splits Upper Red Lake into two parts, which can be seen on current maps.

“The Red Lake chiefs called out the false map as not representative of the 1889 agreement,” Seki said. “Red Lake leaders have consistently asserted plans to preserve all land around both Upper and Lower Red Lake ever since.”

The present-day boundaries date back to the 1904 Land Act when the federal government forbade land allotment to individual Chippewa living within Red Lake Nation.

“The United States eventually set aside large areas of forests to add back to the reservation,” the band’s website adds. “However, in 1904, U.S. officials returned and forced the Red Lake Band of Chippewa to cede more land that was set aside in 1889.”

Ongoing efforts

Tribal secretary Sam Strong detailed the band’s ongoing efforts to restore tribal boundaries that have transcended recent developments.


“Our people have been working toward regaining the lake for a hundred years now,” Strong said. “Back in the 1930s, there was an attempt to regain part of the lake that was stolen, so this has been an ongoing effort for many years and this renewed interest is born out of the community’s desire to right the wrong of the past.”

Strong also noted environmental concerns with Upper Red Lake including the presence of invasive species, littering and other ecological threats.

“(Our efforts) are born out of a desire to protect the lake, too. There’s been a lot of issues concerning the ecology and a healthy way to maintain the lake, so that’s an important part of the conversation,” Strong added, “trying to maintain these natural resources that we’ve been protecting for hundreds of years.”

Upper Red Lake
Upper Red Lake is one of Minnesota's premier walleye fishing spots and shallow shoreline areas are sure bets for walleye success during the first few weeks of the season.
Brad Dokken / Forum News Service

Red Lake Nation has submitted documentation to Deb Haaland, secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, that explains the historical development of the nation’s boundaries and the tribal chiefs’ positions on the east boundary from the 1889 agreement.

Seki said if the United States declines the band’s request to restore the east boundary, Red Lake Nation would likely seek litigation.

“The theft of the lake was something that happened to our people many years ago,” Strong left off, “so righting that wrong would be the ultimate goal.”

Daltyn Lofstrom is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on education and community stories.
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