After years of miscommunication born from land ownership issues, a University of Minnesota research center and neighboring Native American tribe are working to find common ground.
The University’s Cloquet Forestry Center is located on the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Reservation, and the two parties are now working to resolve communication issues and share the land.
The LaPointe Treaty of 1854 created the Fond du Lac reservation, which is just more than 100,000 acres in size, and gave the tribe certain rights to the entire property, including the rights to hunt, fish and gather.
These rights carried over when the Forestry Center officially acquired the property in 1909 through federal and state legislation.
The College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences currently uses the approximately 3,500-acre Forestry Center for research and educational purposes.
About five years ago, the center began restricting use of the property, putting up “no trespassing” signs and granting recreational use only via temporary permits.
Band members immediately took issue with being barred from land on which they had rights to hunt and gather.
“It’s here on [our] reservation, but they [told] us that we can’t use it,” Fond du Lac Planning Director Jason Hollinday said. “A lot of people have problems with that.”
The signs were removed in early October, but issues regarding the land linger.
Because the “no trespassing” signs prevented people from interacting with nature, they contradicted traditional Native American perspectives, American Indian studies assistant professor Clint Carroll said.
Carroll said he hopes increased communication can bridge this “presumed disconnect between nature and people” and that the center and the tribe can learn from one another.
‘A history of mistrust’
Carrie Pike, a researcher at the Forestry Center who served as interim director from January 2012 to August 2013, said the center’s previous director planted the “no trespassing” signs around 2008 to prevent people from interfering with a certain type of grouse research.
She said the center didn’t approach the tribe before putting the signs up.
“We’ve seen, over the years, the political fallout of that,” she said. “It’s been damaging to the University.”
The University’s and CFANS’ reputation “is not very good” among tribal leadership, she said.
The center took the signs down in early October, Pike said, but the question of what tribal rights the center should acknowledge still remains.
“It becomes a big legal question, and I don’t know the correct answer,” Pike said, “and so what we’re trying to avoid is going to court to find out what the true legal answer is.”
Fond du Lac Tribal Chairwoman Karen Diver said the controversy with the signs spurred greater communication and cooperation between the tribe and the Forestry Center. The Band is “grateful for that,” she said.
Diver said she doesn’t anticipate the Band will take the issue up as a legal case.
Karl Lorenz, director for diversity and inclusion in CFANS, said he hopes the college can recognize that Native Americans have legitimate concerns about land ownership and use, especially for land that’s historically in their reservation boundaries, like at the Fond du Lac Reservation.
“There is a real history of mistrust, and I think there are good reasons for that,” he said. “Our concern at this point really is to move in a different direction, and that is to recognize that we need a more trusting relationship.”
University professor Linda Nagel took the Forestry Center director of operations position in August. She said the center plans to create new signs that better reflect the University’s policies and the way it wants the land to integrate with the surrounding community.
The center also hopes to develop hunting and gathering guidelines that would work for a variety of users, she said.
Though changing the center’s hunting policy would mean changing its designation as a state game refuge, Nagel said, the center is still exploring those options.
For now, she said, the center’s goal is to open up communication about how it can work with the Band to understand everyone’s perspective and better their relationship.
“We’re very welcoming to that communication,” she said.
A ‘lot to lose’
Pike, the Forestry Center researcher, said there would be a “lot to lose” if the center’s land was ever transferred out of University control.
“We can’t replace 100 years of forest research,” she said, “so it really puts us in a difficult position where we want to do the right thing but we need to protect our research.”
In the long-term future, Chairwoman Diver said, it would be ideal for the Band to discuss reacquiring the land and leasing it to the University in a way that’s a “win-win” for both communities.
“I think it’s just the plain right and moral thing to do to recognize that they were beneficiaries of an action that [was] harmful to our tribe and our homeland and to work to rectify it,” she said.
‘Building a trail’
After the signs went down in early October, the center held an open house that Band members attended, Pike said.
Taking down the signs is the first step in developing better communication with the tribe, and the center is also working on ways to collaborate with Band members on educational endeavors, she said.
Currently, the center is partnering with a representative from the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College to host the 13 Moons program, a cultural education initiative.
Through the program, Band members collect material from the Forestry Center to make traditional crafts that show how natural resource issues relate to Ojibwe culture.
Pike said now there may be increased interest in bringing tribal students to the center for education and research.
“They can teach us how they know to use the forest,” she said.
Hollinday, planning director for the Fond du Lac reservation, said he’s in talks with the Forestry Center about creating a walkway connecting some of the center’s trails to the reservation.
“It’s very positive,” he said. “Especially if we can start building a trail [and] kind of link things together.”