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Congress considers returning land to Minnesota tribe

December 20, 2018

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A measure moving through Congress would return nearly 12,000 acres of land in Minnesota to the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

The measure seeks to reverse a land seizure by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs that dates back to the 1940s, The Star Tribune reported. The Senate passed the measure but it would still need the approval of the House, which has until the end of the year to act.

Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith, a bill sponsor, said the goal is to return land “that was wrongfully taken.”

The bureau incorrectly interpreted an executive order from the U.S. Department of Interior starting in 1948 and began transferring tribal land to the U.S. Forest Service without the owners’ consent. Officials determined that the transfers were illegal in the 1950s, but a Supreme Court ruling later limited tribes’ ability to win back the land.

“With this legislation, Congress has an opportunity to right a historic wrong by returning stewardship of these lands to ... the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe,” said Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

The band doesn’t immediately plan to change how the undeveloped land is used and people will still be allowed to hunt, fish, hike and bike in the area, said Leech Lake chairman Faron Jackson Sr.

“It will go a long way to restore our limited land base while preserving land for future generations,” Jackson said.

The tribe is culturally and spiritually connected to the land, said LeRoy Staples Fairbanks, a representative on the Leech Lake Tribal Council.

“In a perfect world, we would ask the federal government for every inch of Leech Lake reservation to go back to its rightful owners, but now with so many different land exchanges and ownership changes, that’s probably unrealistic,” Fairbanks said. “But the closer we get to re-solidifying this land base and righting wrongs, the closer we move toward reconciliation.”

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