Mdewakanton court case history: A fight over tribal identity


By Lori Carlson, Editor
A federal judge’s April deadline has galvanized a group claiming it represents “lineal descendents” of the original occupants of tribal land in Prior Lake.

The group, Minnesota Mdewakanton Dakota Oyate (MMDO), has fought the U.S. government through the court system, claiming rights to land, money and tribal identity it says it is owed.

The group says the U.S. government helped other Mdewakanton tribes, including the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC), grab land owned by the original land occupants, “the Loyal Mdewakanton.”
The group’s members say they can prove they are descendents of the Mdewakanton Sioux members listed in an 1886 census.

The beginnings of the conflict stem from the Sioux Uprising of 1862, but a judge’s affirmation this December of an earlier decision is a major advancement in the case, according to representatives of the MMDO.

U.S. Court of Claims Judge Charles F. Lettow originally ruled in October 2004 that the U.S. government breached a trust by allowing organizers of other tribes to take over Minnesota Mdewakanton Sioux land, including tribal land in Prior Lake now owned by the SMSC. Lettow said the government breached a trust created by appropriation acts in 1888, 1889 and 1890, which he believes stated that the federal government was supposed to hold land for the permanent benefit of the Minnesota Mdewakanton listed on the census.

In December, Lettow upheld his earlier decision, saying the United States is the holder of a trust for the Loyal Mdewakanton. He also called for all potential descendents of the people listed on the 1886 Mdewakanton census to submit proof of descent by April 28 and join the class-action suit.

The SMSC, along with the Prairie Island Mdewakanton in Red Wing, has filed an amicus brief in court saying it supports the government in the case. The Lower Sioux Mdewakanton in southern Minnesota recently announced its support for the lawsuit. The main plaintiff in the lawsuit is Sheldon Peters Wolfchild, tribal chairman of the Lower Sioux.
The U.S. government is considering whether to appeal Lettow’s ruling.
Roots

In 1862, after money promised by the federal government through a land-for-gold treaty never reached the Sioux (Dakota) living near the Minnesota River, the people rose up, raiding white settlements. After six weeks, hundreds – both white settlers and Sioux – had died.
That same year, 38 Sioux were hanged in Mankato for their participation in the uprising.

After the uprising, captured Sioux were moved to South Dakota and Nebraska, while a small group of those who did not participate in the uprising (the “Loyal Mdewakanton”) hid along the river banks. The group fought to remain in Minnesota, with its leader, Bishop Henry Whipple, appealing to Congress to provide land for the Loyal Mdewakanton. Congress obliged, though the group members had bounties on their scalps and were not allowed to use land they leased or purchased from white settlers.

The government began asking Mdewakanton who had fled after the uprising to return to Minnesota for the 1886 census. The appropriation acts of 1888, 1889 and 1890 set aside trust land here, in Red Wing and in southern Minnesota for the 208 Mdewakanton who were counted for the census.

‘Simple breach of trust’

Barbara Feezor Buttes lives in Prior Lake in her mother’s house on Eagle Creek Circle, on land where the last five generations of her family have lived.

An anthropology professor who is leading the effort to identify descendents, Buttes said the case is “a very simple situation of breach of trust” in which the government helped the SMSC – along with the Prairie Island Mdewakanton and the Lower Sioux Mdewakanton – take over land that the MMDO says belongs to the Loyal Mdewakanton.
The group contends that government incompetence – and even illegality – turned the land over to the current tribal governments, including the SMSC. The Indian Reorganization Act in 1969 established the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, which formerly was called the Prior Lake Reservation.

“The federal government was supposed to hold forever the land in Minnesota for the permanent benefit of the Mdewakanton people,” Buttes said. “And in 1969 [the year Norman Crooks’ SMSC was established in Prior Lake], they handed over this land to this little group of people in Prior Lake. Then they told us we have to go ask them if we can be a member of their community.”

Buttes said she’s fighting for the rights, and the identity, of her family. Her mother, Winifred Feezor, and grandmother, Louise Bluestone, tried to take their own cases against the U.S. government to federal court in the 1980s. The John Bluestone family is the only Mdewakanton family in Prior Lake that has continuously occupied an original 1886 land assignment, she said, adding that her great grandfather, John Bluestone, lived on the land before it became part of the U.S. title in 1886.

Buttes said Louise Bluestone’s parents, Ellen and Harry Bluestone, both were listed on the 1886 census.

The current lawsuit “recognizes the sacrifices they made to remain in Minnesota,” she said.

The three tribes, including the SMSC, are not parties in the lawsuit.
“The judge can’t order us to do anything at this point. That’s a very important point, because there are a lot of rumors out there about imminent takeovers,” said Willie Hardacker, the SMSC’s legal counsel.

“For tribal government, it’s operations as usual. We’re not concerned about any imminent takeover,” Hardacker added.

Though the SMSC, Prairie Island and the Lower Sioux are not party to the lawsuit, the judge said he believes he has the jurisdiction to bring the tribes into the suit. Hardacker said if the case gets to the point in which the judge orders the tribes into the case, “We would make arguments.”

But Hardacker cautioned that the lawsuit could “drag on” for years.
“We are very much in the preliminary stages of the lawsuit,” he said. “Any impact on the tribe here is very much down the road.”

Buttes and the MMDO view the situation differently. Erick Kaardal, attorney for the plaintiffs, said after the judge’s December ruling, “the court’s Dec. 16 opinion is a huge step forward for us.”

Buttes’ Wicanpi Research group has organized thousands of documents that she says prove the descent of the roughly 2,500 people named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. She said by the judge’s April 28 deadline, hundreds more plaintiffs could be added.

Buttes has written a book – available only online – called “Beyond Sovereignty: The Mdewakanton Identity Heist.” She maintains that the federal government assisted Norman Crooks (father of current Tribal Chairman Stanley Crooks) and the SMSC in taking over land she says belonged to the Minnesota Mdewakanton people.

The SMSC’s stance has been that the lawsuit plaintiffs have not proven they are descendents of those Mdewakanton on the 1886 census. Buttes said she believes in some cases, SMSC members cannot prove that they are descendents of the 1886 Mdewakanton, either.

Hardacker maintains that such proof from the “lineal descendents” has yet to be seen.

Still, Buttes said everyone on the lawsuit has proven his or her descent through submittal of birth certificates or baptismal records. She describes the judge’s recent decision as “a thrilling moment for the Mdewakanton people.”

“This is the most momentous issue in modern Indian history. It’s absolutely remarkable,” she said.

Lori Carlson can be reached at editor@plamerican.com.

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