News Analysis on Saginaw Chippewa Reservation Boundaries Settlement

From the Mount Pleasant Morning Sun:

Expert: settlement could bring clarity


An expert in the law of Indian country says the agreements that could end the Indian country lawsuit could bring some sense and clarity to where, and to whom, Tribal jurisdiction applies.

“Indian country in Michigan is a mess,” said Michigan State University Law School professor [Matthew] Fletcher, who teaches in the indigenous law program. “Most lands that could be considered Indian lands are checkerboarded, with multiple jurisdictions asserting authority over lands dependent on who owns them, Indian or non-Indian individuals or entitles.”

The settlement agreements hammered out in 20 months of closed-door negotiations define Indian country in Isabella County as all of Deerfield, Denver, Isabella, Nottawa and Wise townships, the north halves of Chippewa and Union townships, and a small portion of federal trust land south of Remus Road in Chippewa Township.

“This settlement starts from scratch, and reinstates settled boundaries that everyone can recognize and understand from Day One,” Fletcher said.

Those boundaries are among the items in the settlements being challenged by Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox. He argues that not all the land within the boundary area is part of the historic Isabella Reservation, because it had already been sold off to private owners or given to the state of Michigan before the treaties of 1858 and 1864, which allocated land to members of the predecessor bands of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe.

“Attorney General Cox objects to the settlements involving the state, but the city and county are nonetheless affected by the state’s agreement,” said Joy Yearout, Cox’s spokeswoman. “The proposed settlement necessarily subsumes the city and the county because they are both affected by any resolution of the establishment of a reservation and the determination of what is or is not included on the reservation.”

Yearout said Cox wants U.S. District Court Judge Thomas L. Ludington to reject the series of agreements and go to trial.

“Settled law on treaties is that any ambiguous language in an Indian treaty is to be interpreted for the benefit of the Tribe and its members,” Fletcher said. “More importantly, a treaty is an agreement between sovereigns that rises above the level of any state law.”

Cox currently is taking public comments on the settlement, which was made public last week. The deadline to file comments is Friday, and Ludington could sign a proposed consent order putting the deals into effect as early as next week.

Fletcher said it made sense to settle the definition of what constitutes Indian country outside of the courtroom. Under federal law, Native Americans come under Tribal and federal jurisdiction while on land defined under the legal term Indian country. In general, state law does not apply to Natives in that area, but does apply to non-Natives.

“Once the tribe and state agreed to avoid letting the federal court make a determination on that question, one that likely would have made no one happy, it made sense to establish separate understandings for specific purposes,” Fletcher said. “Tribes and states do this all the time.”

The agreements cover taxation, child welfare, land use, conservation and law enforcement.

The land use agreement with the city of Mt. Pleasant, for example, puts Natives under city zoning rules, but with appeals to Tribal, not state court. The agreement with Isabella County calls for the Tribe to create its own zoning ordinance for areas outside the city of Mt. Pleasant, which would mirror the zoning rules already in place. Under the county agreement, however, that zoning could evolve over time in different directions for Natives and non-Natives.

The law enforcement agreements allow civil police agencies, including Mt. Pleasant Police, Isabella County sheriff’s deputies and Michigan State Police to enforce Tribal law. It does not, however, give civil authorities the right to enter and, for example, execute search warrants on Native residences in an area defined as the “Tribal enclave,” located near the Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort and the Tribal Operations complex.

Taxation and revenue agreements spell out exemptions to state taxes for Tribal members, and require the Tribe to make payments in lieu of taxes on land taken into trust in the future. For land inside the city, the payments will continue; for land outside the city, the payments would be as much as seven years’ worth of taxes.