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The 1787 Northwest Ordinance:

When European settlers first began to occupy this land, the American Indian tribes were recognized as sovereign nations and the government related to the tribes under the guidelines of international law. In 1787 the United States Government formerly recognized Indians with the passage of the Northwest Ordinance.

Article One, Section Eight of the United States Constitution:

In 1789, congress passed Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. The article gave congress the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, between the States and with the Indian Tribes. This article laid the foundation of the law from which more than two hundred (200) years of federal legislation and programs dealing with Indian tribes would derive.


During the years of 1805 – 1889, the United States government signed a number of treaties with the native tribes. Treaties are legal binding agreements between two separate sovereign nations. All treaties made by the United States government with another nation must be ratified by the U.S. Senate. The U.S. Constitution in Article VI, Section 2 reads:

“All treaties made, or shall be made, under the authority of the United States shall be the supreme law of the land and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution of laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”

These Treaties have the same legal dignity as any other international agreement.

Out of these treaties, vast amounts of land were ceded or given to the United States, reserving certain areas of land for the exclusive occupancy and use of the tribes.

The Three Lakes Area

When the first settlers arrived in this area, the Ojibwe had been living throughout northern Minnesota. The Pillager and the Mississippi bands had homes and villages on or near Cass Lake, Lake Winnibigoshish, and Leech Lake.

The area was covered with dense forests of pine, poplar, oak, cedar, maple, birch and spruce.

Treaties were negotiated to acquire a vast majority of this land in exchange for cash, goods and the setting aside of land for reservations that would forever be home of the Ojibwe.

Because of the existing treaties loggers could not get their hands on the magnificent White Pine and Red Pine that has stood on Indian land for hundreds of years. That changed with the passage of the Nelson Act in 1889.

In 1896 and 1898 the towns of Walker and Cass Lake were established. Logging camps and saw and planning mills sprang up. Lumbering was the mainstay for decades. Farming and dairying developed later on the cut-over lands.

Nelson Act 1889

Congress passes the Dawes Act in 1887, which, combined with the Nelson Act two years later, allots 80 acres of non pine land, within the boundaries of the reservation, to each tribal family. The remainder of the non-allotted Indian lands were then opened up and sold or granted to timber companies, railroads and settlers. With the passage of the Nelson Act, loggers were able to move onto the land, and within a couple of years clear cutting was in full progress.

It should be noted, that with the passage of the Nelson Act, the state of Minnesota now claimed that tribal members were now subject to state hunting and fishing laws. No longer could tribal members hunt, fish, or gather on the Leech Lake Reservation as promised by the numerous treaties they had previously negotiated.

Another unforeseen problem was, allotments were to be held in trust for twenty five (25) years, upon which, Indians were then given a fee patent. As a result, most Indians lost their allotments through tax forfeitures, sales and/or fraud.

The Steenerson Act of 1904

The logging industry soon realized a huge profit could be gained if they could get access to the timber and land on the allotments being held in trust by the federal government. Thus began the lobbying of state legislators to enact laws allowing loggers access to timber on tribal allotments.

The first such law was the Steenerson Act of 1904. This allowed the Department of the Interior to issue an additional 80 acres of land to tribal members they deemed “worthy”. Attached to this Act was a rider called the Clapp Act. One day after the Steenerson Act was introduced, the Clapp Rider passed almost unnoticed. This Rider authorized tribal members to sell valuable timber resources from their allotments.

The Burke Act of 1906

The Burke Act gave the Secretary of the Interior authority to issue fee patents to tribal members if he deemed them “competent and capable”.

However, in many cases Indians who were deemed competent often were not informed that they were deemed competent, nor were they informed that their land was now a fee patent as opposed to trust land. As a result, after a period of unpaid taxes, the land was sold without the owners consent to pay past taxes. This process was known as the "forced fee patent process."

A second Clapp Act in 1906 made a general proclamation only “mixed blood” tribal members were competent enough to make decisions about land sales for themselves.

Creation of the Chippewa National Forest

In 1908 concern over runaway logging prompted the Federation of Women’s Clubs located in Minneapolis to establish a state forest on the LLR to protect the remaining red and white pine from total destruction by the logging industry. In 1908 the Minnesota National Forest was established comprised of 225,000 acres. In 1928 the name was changed to the Chippewa National Forest.

Note, the establishment of this forest did absolutely nothing to curb the wide spread destruction of the majestic pine from the logging industry as intended. Over 95% of the white and red pine that was still standing when the Chippewa National Forest was established has been cut.

Meriam Report

In the mid 1920’s the U.S. government commissioned a study of the American Indians. This report documented the deplorable conditions of Indian people across the United States, the devastation of the Nelson Act, and the failure of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to do anything about it.

In response, legislation was enacted called the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. The Indian Reorganization Act put a stop to the sale of allotments, authorized tribes to establish their own governments, and restored all surplus lands (the Restoration Act) to the tribes that land not been sold under the Nelson Act.

Indian Reorganization Act of 1934

Under the Reorganization Act the federal government decided that the six (6) Ojibwe bands in Minnesota (not including Red Lake) would be recognized as the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and all lands that were restored on Leech Lake were in the name of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. The MCT adopt a constitution in 1937.

The 1964 Constitution vested political power in the Reservation Business Committees (RBCs) made up of a chairman, secretary treasurer, and one to three district representatives. In practice it became a five-member governing body on all six reservations.

The chairman and secretary-treasurer of each reservation are automatically seated on the 12-member Tribal Executive Committee (TEC).

Hunting, Fishing, and Wild Rice Rights

The Tribal Executive Committee voted unanimously in October 1968 to support Leech Lake's attempt to reclaim jurisdiction over its territory "with respect to hunting, trapping, fishing and wild ricing and the control, licensing and regulation thereof within the boundaries of the Leech Lake Reservation." As the TEC noted, Public Law 280 should have preserved tribal treaty rights, but the state simply refused to acknowledge them.

In 1971 a federal judge ruled that the Nelson Act did NOT, as the state had argued, dissolve the Leech Lake reservation and that tribal members therefore retained hunting and fishing rights within its boundaries.

In the first major hunting, fishing, and wild rice rights cases in Minnesota, the Tribe confirmed that it had the right to control these activities on the reservation. The State pays the Tribe for its restraint in using the reservation's resources. In addition, the State conservation officers are deputized by the Tribe to enforce tribal natural resource codes.

Game and Fish Regulations

Members of a band may hunt and fish on any reservation under regulations provided by the band or tribe that have authority over the reservation. This applies to both trust and nontrust land within the boundaries of the reservation.

State jurisdiction on hunting and fishing laws over nonmembers is maintained for all reservations of the state. The reservation areas are considered "open" because the reservation trust lands are interspersed with nontrust lands. On "open" reservations nonmembers are subject to state jurisdiction. This question of nonmembers was litigated in federal court and affirmed.

Reservation Treaties:

A Series of treaties, also known as “reservation treaties” were signed between the United States and the Indian tribes. Along with the treaties many promises were made. The promises included:

  1. Protection for the tribes from attacks
  2. Legal assistance
  3. Health care
  4. Education
  5. Financial assistance
  6. Sovereignty
  7. Religious freedom
  8. Confirmation and protection of certain rights
  9. Self-government
  10. Jurisdiction over their own lands
  11. Fishing and hunting rights

These promises were made in return for the tribes giving up their livelihood and traditional homelands. These promises were and still are legally binding upon the United States Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.

The Ojibwe living around Leech Lake signed treaties with the United States Government, and by doing so, the Leech Lake Reservation was created. In 1858, the state of Minnesota was admitted to the Union.

It is important to note the United States Government has been dealing with the Leech Lake Reservation on a government-to-government basis longer than Minnesota has been a state.