On March 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., issued a decision (available here in pdf form) in the Wolfchild lawsuit concerning the lands purchased by the federal government for the benefit of the Mdewakanton Dakota who were living in Minnesota on May 20, 1886. If I understand the decision correctly (and I may have to revise this later), the court ruled in favor of the case made by the present-day federal government that the lands bought for those Mdewakanton and specified as being for the benefit of their lineal descendants, were not held in trust for them, and that therefore the lineal descendants have no claim on the federal government. Further, the court appears to be saying that regardless of any claim any lineal descendant might have had to the land once, Congress took away these rights when it turned the land over to the organized Dakota communities in a law passed in 1980. To these people the court basically says: Tough, get over it.
Even though this decision does not necessarily mean the end of this lawsuit or any others that may be brought on the issue, the decision will be good news for some and it will be bad news for many others. I suspect that the only entity that it will be completely good news for is the federal government, which has thrived since 1862 and earlier on the divisions among the Dakota people.
Were the Wolfchild case to come to an end today it would not magically unify the Mdewakanton Dakotas and other Dakotas in Minnesota. Like many people around Minnesota I first heard of the decision from a Indian-issues listerv, in an email from a Dakota person who sent out an Adobe Acrobat file with the court’s decision and appeared to communicate his feelings about it by ending the message: “Anpetu Waste Yuhapipo, You All Have a Good Day!!” Knowing a little about this person, I had a pretty good idea about what the decision was before I even looked at it. To get another take on what it meant, I looked at the Mohrman Kaardal law firm website, where Erick Kaardal, the chief attorney for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, wrote: “The Federal Circuit issued an opinion today holding that the government won. Plaintiffs lost. Counsel for Wolfchild plaintiffs are reviewing appeal options.”
I am not sure how this is all going to be reported in the media. (Here’s one early report.) One thing that I doubt will get reported very well is the relationship of this decision to the complicated history of the Mdewakanton Dakotas in Minnesota since 1862. There is very little understanding out there about why the Mdewakanton Dakotas and other Dakotas in Minnesota are the divided community they are today. To a large extent this is directly the result of actions taken by the federal goverment at every step along the way. One might even think that the federal government likes it that way and wants it to continue.
As it happens just before I received the email about the court decision I was looking for a copy of a letter that I had found once in a research collection, a letter that really shows the role that the federal government has played in encouraging Dakota disunity. After searching through piles and piles of paper I found it. It from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington to Minnesota Congressman Al Quie, dated April 19, 1961. Quie had earlier sent the commissioner a letter from a woman at Prairie Island complaining about conditions there. In response the commissioner gave the congressman a summary of a key moment in Mdewakanton Dakota history, when the federal government implemented the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) in the mid-1930s, through which it encouraged bands and reservations to create business-like self-government:
In October of 1935 a constitution for the Mdewakanton Sioux was submitted which proposed a single organization of all the Mdewakanton Sioux communities. However it was subsequently decided by the Solicitor for the Department of Interior that these Indians had under the land purchase acts abandoned tribal relations and therefore were not privileged to organize as a tribe over various reservations. Their only basis of organization was as Indians residing on a reservation.
The decision in favor of a separate organization was agreeable to the Indians, particularly in view of the fact that they had originally begun organization in just such a manner. It was at a mass meeting of the Indians from all of these commnities that a single organization had been decided upon quite spontaneously. However, when the legal and practical difficulties of such an organization became apparent, each group willingly returned to its original plan. It was decided that an annual conference of the Mdewakanton Sioux Indians on matters of common interest would satisfy the commendable desire of these Indians to unite on such matters.
In other words, the Dakota started out wanting to organize as separate communities then when all the communities met together they decided to unify as a people, but then the federal government told them they could not do that, so they decided to make the best of things and organize separately. Given the fact that the IRA was supposed to be about self-government, why did the federal government tell them they could not organize as a single people? At the very same time the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe was re-organizing as a single tribe (except for Red Lake). In the case of the Ojibwe, the individual reservations were subsequently granted charters from the MCT. But in the case of the Dakota, they were only allowed to organize as individual separate communities, which they did. The last community to organize was Shakopee in 1969.
To understand why the federal government forced this decision you have to look at the history of the way the IRA was implemented around the country. And that could go on for pages. One way or another, the Dakota are who they are today, a number of separate communities with different land bases (all based originally on those land purchases in starting in the 1880s), different membership policies, different casinos–each casino with a different level of income from its customer base–all of the communities jealous of their own interests and wary of working together. Not to mention the issues involving all the unenrolled Dakota who have not been allowed to be members of these communities.
These are the Dakota that the Department of Interior thinks about when it says that it cannot give the Coldwater-Bureau of Mines property to the Dakota. Federal officials ask: If we gave the land to the Dakota which Dakota would we give it to? Who are the Dakota? The answer is that the Dakota are the fractionalized people that the federal government made. Given that the fractionalized nature of the Dakota is due in large part to the actions of the federal government, you would think that the government bears a special obligation when working with the Dakota to find better ways of involving all of them in their processes. In the case of Coldwater Spring, this would suggest the need for special efforts at mediation to arrive at a way for the Dakota to work together. But of course, that could only begin if the Department of Interior and the Park Service finally acknowledged that Coldwater Spring is an important place for Dakota people.
Could the Dakota people work together to protect a place like Coldwater Spring under their joint management? It is a question worth thinking about.