Northern Minnesota tribe buys back 28,000 acres of forest lands to help restore reservation

Anishinaabe drummers at the announcement event in Nett Lake. (Courtesy Bois Forte Band of Chippewa)

A groundbreaking real estate transaction announced last week by a northern Minnnesota Native American tribe will restore a wide swath of lands to indigenous people in northern Minnesota. The Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, with reservations at Lake Vermilion, Nett Lake, and Deer Creek, purchased former timber company lands from national nonprofit The Conservation Fund.

The deal will return the land to Native hands, after it was first provided in 19th-century treaties, and later taken back by the U.S. government and sold to lumber companies and settlers. The band says it will manage the forests by balancing a variety of values, including cultural, environmental, and economic considerations.

Officials said the acquisition represented the largest restoration of land to the band since the Nett Lake and Deer Creek sectors of its reservation were established in 1866. It was all part of the reservation after mid-19th century treaties, which was broken up and privatized by the Allotment Act of 1887. International lumber company PotlatchDeltic eventually ended up owning significant amounts of the acreage, which it sold to The Conservation Fund two years ago.

“This is a historic day for the Bois Forte Band,” said band chairwoman Cathy Chavers. “This acquisition represents the largest restoration of land to our Reservation since our ancestors secured what was to be our permanent and undisturbed homeland. This acquisition rights a historic wrong and returns lush forests to the Band to foster and protect in homage to our ancestors and as an inheritance to our future generations. On behalf of the Band, I offer the deepest thanks to all those who made this day possible, especially those at The Conservation Fund and the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, whose efforts have been instrumental in making this historic restoration happen.”

Chavers also said it was the largest such restoration ever in the country, and was done without any Congressional action.

Map courtesy Bois Forte Band of Chippewa

The lands in the deal are scattered across the Nett Lake and Deer Creek sectors, as smaller private parcels enmeshed within the reservation. The historic reservation sectors were 111,787-acres for Nett Lake and 22,927-acres for Deer Creek. Before the recent acquisition, the band owned just 36,888 acres across them. The new land adds up to 20 percent of the land base, a significant restoration of its legal lands.

The acquisition agreement includes the band managing the forest through Minnesota’s Sustainable Forest Initiative Act for at least 50 years, which will provide financial incentives for responsible management. Those payments and revenue from other sustainable activities will allow Bois Forte to pay off the purchase. Once the purchase is paid for, revenue will go to other band conservation and land acquisition work.

“This outcome honors the heritage of this land by reuniting it with the Bois Forte Band and ensuring its long-term stewardship,” said Larry Selzer, The Conservation Fund’s president and CEO. “As a mission-driven organization, we are focused on creating solutions for naturally and culturally important lands that make sense for the environment and communities. We respect the Band as the best possible caretakers for this forestland and celebrate together this historic milestone.”

Bois Forte has more than 3,600 members. The purchase ensures they will be able to hunt and harvest on the land, including gathering sacred medicines. The restored lands are expected to provide areas for blueberry picking and more. The Nett Lake reservation is also centered on renowned waters for manoomin, or wild rice.

Acquiring the land is part of a national movement to put land back in the hands of Native Americans as a means to achieve environmental justice conservation. The acquisition is financed by a Native community development institution dedicated to restoring lands to tribes. Its leader heralded the Bois Forte project.

“As we work to ensure more Indian lands return to Indian hands, today’s announcement demonstrates a meaningful step on the long journey ahead,” said Cris Stainbrook, president of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation. “We are proud to have helped the Bois Forte Band reach this milestone moment and hope that it inspires many more like it throughout Indian Country. And, it reminds all of us that restoring land to Indian ownership, management and control is more than a hashtag, it is a reality.”

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