How government is learning to cooperate with Minnesota’s tribal nations

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This article was first published in Agate magazine.

Minnesota Department of Transportation workers excavated part of an ancestral graveyard of Lake Superior Chippewa Fond du Lac Band members in 2017 while working near Mission Creek at the western end of Duluth. The agency apologized to the Band for their anger and stopped work. The cemetery was rebuilt after three years of excavations and reconstruction. A memorial is currently being constructed.

Charles Zelle, then-MnDOT Commissioner, stated that such an “incredibly horrible event” may not be as likely in the future. Federal, state, and local agencies will learn to collaborate with tribal nations and consult them.

Since ancient times, tribes have been asking for better relations. The mid-1800s saw Anishinaabe in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan sign treaties with the federal government. They ceded large swathes of land that they had shared for many years. However, they retained the right to continue traditional harvests on these lands. They had many resources to rely on, including fish and wildlife, as well as the roots, bark and sap of many trees and wild rice. They had everything they needed.


Indians are entitled to hunt, fish, and gather wild rice upon the lands and rivers of the territory that has been ceded.

However, the majority of states ignored these parts of the treaties. For more than 100 years, state and county officials routinely put tribal harvesters in prison for violating state laws. Until finally the federal court upheld their rights.

Protesters from Wisconsin disrupted traditional spearfishing at boat landings in the 1980s and sometimes today with racist taunts and rock-throwing and other violence.

Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission
Protesters at a Wisconsin boat landing in 1989.

Bradley Harrington was a young child and a member of Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe during similar events in Minnesota. He recalls that he was told he would be speared or wrapped in a net and thrown in the lake while he was at school. “Back then, tribal members were doing this in secret because they were being arrested by the state.” Harrington recalls that his parents didn’t spear nor net him but that “usually a family member took part and brought back food to the family. ”

Harrington was the first to be appointed Commissioner of Natural Resources for Mille Lacs. He was recently named Director of Tribal Relations at Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources. He has been with the agency for more than two years and oversaw a revision of its tribal consultation policy. This included input from both the tribes as well as DNR staff.

He says that there will always be concerns and differences of perspective, no matter where you are or what the issue is. But he believes this is an opportunity for positive input.

This could include knowledge exchange. Harrington states that there is an openness to receive traditional ecological knowledge. The question is how it will be used. “The majority of traditional knowledge has been proven by western science. It’s exciting to see how some staff (Minnesota DNR), are very interested in the information and how it can be integrated into existing procedures and the general knowledge of DNR citizens,” Harrington states.

A big shift

This is a gradual but significant shift from federal policies which dominated from the colonial period to the 1970s. These policies were designed to suppress Indigenous culture and integrate native Americans into the mainstream American society. The federal government “allocated” land parcels to tribal members and held them in trust for years under the Dawes Act 1887 . The land became subject to local and state taxes after the trust period expired, leading to widespread dispossession. The government also declared non-allotted land “surplus,” which allowed them to be homesteaded. This led to today’s checkerboard pattern across many reservations. Another policy was to force children to be relocated to government-run boarding schools. They were not allowed to practice their culture or speak their language.

Nixon, in the 1970s, declared a new era where “Indian acts and Indian decisions will determine the future of the Indian people.” However, it has taken a while for that to become a reality. Indian gaming has helped to increase education in Indian country and attitudes are changing among non-Indians. The retirements of baby boomers in state government are a good thing. Sometimes, they lead to the retirement of old ideas. Tadd Johnson said, “The old school has stepped down, the new generation has stepped in.” Johnson was the first Native American to be appointed to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents. Johnson, a member of the Bois Fort Band of Chippewa is an attorney and expert in tribal law.

Johnson states that in my 35 years of working with the tribes, I have seen the Feds assert their trust obligation more strongly to the tribes. But I’ve also witnessed states come in, beginning in the last 10 year, to try and understand tribal sovereignty. I hope eventually, counties and municipalities will get there, too.”

In the 1990s, laws were passed that required the federal government to consult tribes before it took any action that could affect them.


Tribal consultation is a formal, two-way, government-to-government dialogue between official representatives of Tribes and Federal agencies to discuss Federal proposals before the Federal agency makes decisions on those proposals. –Bureau of Indian Affairs

In recent years, other states have taken the same steps. Following several executive orders, the Minnesota governor. In 2021, Tim Walz signed a law affirming tribal sovereignty. It required state agencies to appoint tribe-state liaisons and mandated training in tribal-state relations for state leaders. Full-time jobs for tribal liaisons are available in federal and state agencies.

MnDOT’s Tribal Liaison is Levi Brown. According to Brown, the incident at Mission Creek forced his agency “to reassess our business practices and ensure that we take everything forward in a completely different way.” Johnson and Brown oversee a state worker education program that has reached almost 5,000 people. This training includes Anishinaabe culture and begins with history. Brown, who is a member of The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, says that people need to be able to comprehend the past to see the way forward. He is proud of the way MnDOT consults today with tribes.

Office of the Governor
Ceremony to implement state law regarding tribal consultation.

He says, “We realized that we could not rely only on top-level workers; we had to be able to work with people on the ground.” He says that he has trained many workers at all levels, and the agency has become a “true partnership with tribal leaders.” He says communication is key to a successful project. He says, “We do projects that span miles, so we need to engage people living in that corridor, and not just elected leaders.” Comprehensive training is a good idea. “Tribal roads staff feel comfortable calling their district offices with any problem they have on a particular road. They don’t have to call me which would take longer to receive a reply.

The Commissioner of Transportation meets with elected tribal officials to discuss their concerns. However, cooperation and coordination are possible up and down the bureaucracy. Regular meetings allow technical and field staff to identify and solve problems; final decisions are made at the Commissioner/tribal level.

It wasn’t easy.

Collaboration seems a natural step in dealing with natural resource issues. This is especially true in the northern region of the state, where federal, tribal and county land are mixed together in a bizarre quilt pattern. However, historically, the non-tribal governments had enough difficulty communicating with one another and even paying attention to the tribal governments.

From 1981 to 2018, Steven Olson was the Forest Manager at Fond du Lac Band. Olson, a non-tribal member, claims that the Minnesota DNR was not responsive to tribal concerns during his tenure. The state agency succumbed to the pressure of the timber industry and legislators and cut more wood and younger trees that the tribes preferred. It also relied on a computer program for determining which stands should be harvested.

Olson says that one particularly problematic development was when the Minnesota DNR took final decision-making regarding timber sales from regional foresters. This concentrated control in St. Paul.

Olson states, “We would receive timber sale notices and, if we had any concerns about particular stands, they’d tell us it’s too late; it was on the plan.” The state agency recently reversed this policy and now requires that local foresters review any planned cuts before they are implemented. He says, “Now there is a field trip once a year for tribal staff and state staff, which helps ground truth the plans.”

Olson points out some of the complexities in managing one species–birch–which is a key species for the bands. The iconic northern tree is a source of raw materials for food storage and shelter.

Olson says, “After a clearcut you must encourage birch growth.” Aspen roots grow out and leap ahead of other regenerating trees. After harvest, Birch performs better when the soil has been prepared (scarified). You can make containers and artwork from trees as young as 30-50 years old. Shelter and canoes require older trees (50 to 100 years). Birch cannot reach this size due to the DNR’s harvest limit of 40. These uses are not possible for all trees, so it is necessary to plant a lot of trees.

Even at the federal level where consultation is the norm for many years, there are still bumps in the road. Juan Martinez serves as the tribal liaison for the Superior National Forest. His family is Indigenous and he came from New Mexico. Martinez has established a monthly schedule to meet with tribes to discuss all of the Forest’s projects. He says that instead of asking the tribes what their thoughts are on a proposed project, such as a prescribed burn or timber harvest, we will ask them before the Forest moves forward with it. It may take longer, but that’s what we hope for while we iron out the kinks. He says it’s hard to find time when all the important people are available at the same moment. The forest and tribes plan to hold quarterly meetings for larger-picture issues.

Martinez is grateful for the richness of the culture of native people. He says that while federal agencies are aware of the significance of certain objects and places, native people want to dig deeper into the context. It could be a mark on a tree, a tool, or stone point. But they are curious as to why it is there. Is that person on a spiritual quest, hunting, moving between camps, fighting an enemy, or something else? It’s not just about the artifact or spot. That’s what I find fascinating, as well as other U.S. Forest Service employees.”

The challenge is balancing federal policy and tribal preferences. The Superior Forest receives funding for controlled fires based on the number of acres that are burned. To plan and conduct a controlled burn, you need to organize personnel and equipment and plan for any eventualities. Martinez states that it is expensive so we try to burn as much land as possible. But from a tribal perspective, they don’t look at large areas but how a smaller fire will affect a smaller area of the landscape in the way they want. We are trying to find a way to meet both of these needs together.

Both entities seek to combine their different goals. They want their children to have the freedom to continue the traditions they were allowed to under the treaties. Martinez states that people will learn more about the history and want to help, not hinder, the process.

Deep learning

Non-tribal land managers have a lot to learn. Tribal members have used many forest species over the years for various purposes. These include medicines, construction materials and habitat for hunted animal. Indigenous people hold this diversity as a sacred value. In order to be able to harvest on ceded land, it is important to manage and protect the land so that resources can thrive. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe urged this view on the U.S. Forest Service in 2016.

Keith Karnes, the band’s forester says that the chair wrote a letter to the Forest Service chief stating that the federal government was not using its trust authority in a positive way. The letter stated that the Leech Lake Band members are in pain because they can’t pursue their retained rights. Some of this ability has been lost due to overharvest.” It was the Memorandum of Understanding that resulted between the tribe, the Chippewa National Forest employees and it prioritized the idea of cooperative management.

Leech Lake Band
Both the Chippewa National Forest and the Leech Lake Reservation share a lot land.

Karnes says, “I see a lot of the forest as being damaged, after all these years or lack thereof of management.” “Non-tribal agencies have been focusing heavily on early succession, favoring pines and aspen. But I believe in balance: all aspects need attention.

Karnes’ method involves repeatedly thinning forests to eventually grow larger, more mature trees. He says, “If you thin aggressively and early, you’ll get the majestic behemoths which were here before settlement.”

He feels that the logging industry is too influential over standard forestry decision making.

He says that harvesting trees for paper or oriented strandboard plants is not the only goal. We are looking for a paradigm shift. The logging industry must be seen as a tool to achieve an end and not an end in itself. Our goal is ecological restoration. We want the forest to be healthy for all its inhabitants.

Minnesota’s timber industry is keen to maximize its production. This often results in large-scale cutting of young trees. This is something that some deer hunters and hunting clubs find appealing.

Karnes represents a wider view. Karnes acknowledges that wildlife such as deer thrives in young aspen forests. However, “everything is about balance…older forests provide habitats for fishers and lynx.” Some believe that the giant white pines will not do their job until they die, while the eagle may sit at the top and view the rest of the world.

Even rabbits are attracted to him. Snowshoe hares can sometimes become whiter due to climate change. This makes them more visible to predators. He says, “We did a project that created connections between lowland cedar forests so they can move better.” They’re creating corridors for rabbits. We would have been killed if we brought this up in New York a minute ago.

Tribal forest managers see value in each forest dweller, as opposed to modern forestry.

“A typical log goes into the woods to see three scraggly, crooked Birch trees. The agency tells him to get rid of them. Three old men sitting on a bench, three wrinkled and goofy weathered Birch trees. Are they worth keeping? They are not thought to be productive. However, we think otherwise. Although scrub oak is often referred to as junk, it can hold its leaves in winter and provide cover for hunters. It also creates masts that feed a lot wildlife.

Karnes is grateful for the positive changes at non-tribal agencies. “I believe that when the U.S. Forest Service hires people these days, they are told that working with Leech Lake forms part of what they do. It’s been a significant change to see newer people be more open to learning. It’s refreshing.”

St. Louis County

Some county governments in Minnesota are open to the idea of consultation. St. Louis County is one example. It manages over 900,000.000 acres and is currently updating its consultation policy.

Jason Meyer, deputy director for the county’s Lands and Minerals Department, said that the bands are more than just another stakeholder in the forest. They’re sovereign nations. “And The 1854 treaty covers a large portion of what we manage. So it seems like a natural step to speak with them.”

Meyer approached the Fond du Lac Band a little over a year back to assess the results of the consultation that the county and the band had achieved. Meyer said that the county was trying to be a good neighbour, but there was another reason. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (the non-profit organization that certifies county land) was updating its guidelines. Landowners must demonstrate that they have maintained healthy wildlife, provided clean water, and offered recreational benefits. The revised standards of SFI include a renewed emphasis on improving relations between Indigenous people.

Meyer says, “As we spoke with the band, it became clear that we should not just inform them about our plans, but we should also consult them in advance of the project, so they can provide feedback or suggestions.” It might also include a formal review for sensitive sites not on the state’s database. It should be done far enough in advance to allow them to consider their ideas and concerns before we do any work on the ground.” The county shared its timber management plans with the band so they could see what was in store for the coming years, rather than just months.

The county also spoke with the 1854 Treaty Authority. This is an inter-tribal agency that manages off-reservation hunting and fishing rights for the Bois Forte Bands of Lake Superior Chippewa on the lands ceded to them under the Treaty of 1854. This is essentially most of Northeastern Minnesota.

MnDOT
Officials place tribal boundary markers.

Meyer says, “We wanted increase our knowledge about that meaning, what rights tribes have over land we manage.” He says that these conversations allow us to understand the unique concerns and ideas of the tribes, as well as helping tribes understand their programs, policies, and statutes. It’s a two-way street and has been quite productive.

A rare opportunity for consultation was presented recently to the county when three thousand acres of former Potlatch land were offered to it on the northern stretches the St. Louis River. Meyer sought the opinion of the band. He says, “They were very supportive.” Meyer discovered that the band was monitoring the wolf pack in the vicinity.

The Anishinaabe Ojibwe people consider the wolf a central part of their creation story. They want to ensure that wolves are managed in a culturally and biologically acceptable manner. This study aims to understand the ecology and biology of wolves on the Fond du Lac Reservation, and nearby lands.

Meyer states, “I made sure that we had access to the study and now they share their research.”

Talking helps both the county and tribe to discover what they share in common. Meyer states that Meyer and the tribe share a common goal: “Not degrading any land.” We find it possible to modify our plans to meet other objectives, such as smaller patches or reserving certain species like maple. What can we do to improve our projects so they meet their needs?

Meyer recognizes that everyone is busy and sometimes it can be difficult to think about other perspectives. We’ve achieved a lot by prioritizing these consultations. He says that they are making it a priority so we can incorporate it into our regular work.”

Minnesota will benefit from the Anishinaabe culture and improved relations with other governments. Their worldview emphasizes a commitment to protecting nature for seven generations and an appreciation of the interconnectedness of all life, including humans, animals and the environment.

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