Saginaw Chippewa Reservation Boundaries Case News Coverage

From the Morning Sun:

A federal judge has temporarily halted the lawsuit seeking to define the land inside the traditional boundaries of the Isabella Reservation as “Indian Country” while he decides what kind of case Isabella County and the city of Mt. Pleasant can present.

A hearing is set for next month before U.S. District Judge Thomas Ludington in Bay City, where the suit is being heard. The issue is whether the city and county will be permitted to argue that the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe waited too long to file its suit, and whether what the Tribe is asking for is impossible.

The Tribe filed suit in 2005, asking Ludington to declare that all or part of seven townships in Isabella County, and the northern half of the city of Mt. Pleasant, are “Indian country” as defined by federal law. The Tribe is asking for an injunction to prevent the governor, attorney general and state treasurer from exerting criminal or civil jurisdiction over the Tribe or its members “in a manner not allowed in Indian country.”

The federal government has joined the case on the side of the Tribe. The county and the city are part of the case as defendants, on the side of the state.

The city and county were permitted to join the suit last year, and now want to bring in as many as 30 of their own witnesses to bolster their cases. But according to court documents, federal attorneys are arguing that the testimony of those witnesses would be irrelevant and inadmissible.

Attorneys for the city, state and county argue in court documents that the case could affect, in particular, taxation and zoning, and could put land ownership and jurisdiction into question.

Attorney Mary Ann. J. O’Neill, representing the city, argues in a court brief that if the city cannot present those witnesses, it would amount to the judge deciding the case, at least partially, in favor of the Tribe. The city argues it has long exercised jurisdiction over Native people inside the city limits. One document, filed with the court but which has not been made public, purports to list more than 400 names of Native people arrested by city police between 1950 and 1980, and the Tribe didn’t object.

Federal and Tribal attorneys say that’s not relevant, and the case couldn’t be brought until now.

“As a practical and legal matter, the declaration sought in this case will amount to very little change in jurisdiction,” wrote Patricia Miller, representing the federal government. “This case will not overturn years of settled expectations concerning land ownership or occupancy.” Miller says the case couldn’t be brought earlier because the circumstance were “not ripe,” she wrote. The Tribe and the Justice Department say that an 1855 executive order, and treaties signed in 1855 and 1864, created an Indian reservation on five full townships and six half-townships in Isabella County, and it continues to this day.

“The real effect of the declaration will be consistency, predictability, and stability for all governmental entities and their citizens,” she said. The state argues that the predecessors to the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe gave up all their land in a series of treaties, ending with the 1836 Treaty of Saginaw, and that the only land that is truly “Indian country” is the little more than 800 acres held in trust for the Tribe by the federal government.

The state argues even on trust land, it has a right to enforce laws if activities there would affect land off the reservation.

Both city and county officials say they bear no ill will against the Tribe or Native people, but the suit is a way to define the authority of civil and Tribal governments.

A date for a trial, which would be conducted without a jury, has not been set.