After decades of advocacy, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe will see 18 acres of land returned to them by the state of Minnesota. The move comes after lawmakers passed legislation last month to formally return state trust lands inside the boundaries of the Mille Lacs Band’s reservation.

Minnesota’s returning of Indigenous land is part of a much broader global landback movement that has been gaining momentum in part due to studies that show Indigenous guardianship leads to more effective ecological outcomes. As conserving biodiversity grows more critical amid rising global temperatures, Indigenous self-determination and traditions of relating to land and waters are increasingly recognized as vital climate solutions

“This is a great opportunity for us as the Mille Lacs Band to preserve that land in a way that is respectful of nature,” said Kelly Applegate, commissioner of natural resources at the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. He said the land transfer will take more than a month to happen. “Whatever we do, it’ll be in a lens of environmental protection.” 

The Mille Lacs’ lands in question are known as state trust lands. These trust lands, established at statehood, are grants of land from the federal government primarily created to support education and are found across the western United States. On the Mille Lacs reservation, those 18 acres represent only a fraction of the 2.5 million acres of state trust lands across Minnesota, including nearly 344,000 acres inside the borders of eight reservations. Trust lands in Minnesota typically generate revenue for education through mining, timber, and land sales, and for the 2023-24 school year, trust lands generated almost $49 million for public and charter schools. The trust lands on Mille Lacs, however, have only generated about $45 annually. 

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Minnesota is one of 15 states that owns land within federal Indian reservations that generate revenue for non-Indigenous institutions. 

“Designating [that land] as a school trust parcel — we had no say in that, it was just a designation that was put upon that land without our original approval,” said Applegate, adding that tribal members never stopped occupying the land in question. He said the band is home to more than 5,000 enrolled members and never relinquished title to the land.

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The Mille Lacs measure was 1 of several bills considered by the Minnesota Legislature this year that sought to return land to Indigenous nations and was authored by Senator Mary Kunesh, who has ancestral ties to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and is the first Native woman to serve in the Minnesota Senate. 

A bill to return 3,400 acres from the University of Minnesota to the Fond du Lac Band didn’t pass, but university officials said they’re still committed to returning the property. State lawmakers also considered proposals to give back state land to the Red Lake Nation and return land within White Earth State Forest to White Earth Nation. Both measures died after facing opposition. 

The Mille Lacs measure sets aside $750,000 of state funds for the state commissioner of natural resources to pay project costs such as valuation expenses, closing costs, and legal fees to complete the transfer, but not everyone is happy about the legislation. The Mille Lacs County Board of Commissioners issued a press release condemning the purchase. Dillon Hayes, county administrator of Mille Lacs County, said the transfer violates the state constitution, specifically a requirement that the state must put the land up for public auction. 

“Right, wrong, or otherwise, we really have a process to follow. We have a constitution in the state of Minnesota,” said Hayes. “The board believes that we should be following that process.” 

Hayes said that the estimated value of the parcel within the reservation exceeds more than $1 million due to rising property values, and that state schools are missing out on funding not only from the $750,000 appropriated to purchase the property but also from the higher price the land could have fetched at auction. 

“Federally recognized Indian tribes, like the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, possess the financial means to purchase such lands at public sale,” the board wrote in a press release last week. “This legislation unfairly advantages the tribe at the expense of our local schools and taxpayers.” 

Applegate said it’s unfortunate that the county isn’t supportive. 

“We’re in a new era of restoring land back to Indigenous people, and people shouldn’t feel threatened by that,” Applegate said. “We’re the original caretakers of all of this land, and who better to manage it than the tribal nations?”

June 21, 2024: This article has been updated to clarify that the Mille Lacs land was the only school trust land to be returned. The Lower Sioux Indian Community received land from the Minnesota Historical Society.
June 28, 2024: This article has been updated to clarify the land transfer will take more than a month to complete.