Democrats introduce multiple bills to transfer ownership of state land to tribes

One DFL senator from northwest Minnesota has told GOP colleagues he's a "no" vote on a bill that would transfer the White Earth State Forest to the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.

Upper Sioux Community staff members celebrate the recent land transfer. (Upper Sioux Community - Tribal Historic Preservation Office/Facebook)

Four pieces of legislation that Democrats have introduced at the Minnesota Legislature in recent weeks aim to transfer ownership of property they say tribal nations inside Minnesota lost decades ago due to federal and state government policies.

But while proponents believe these land reclamation, or “land back,” bills are gaining momentum, many residents and local government officials in those areas are criticizing the legislation and opposing it at the Capitol.

One of the bills that has gained the most attention this month is SF5080, which would have the state transfer all state-owned land in the Red Lake State Forest and within one mile of Upper Red Lake to the Red Lake Band of Chippewa. It would provide $20 million to the Department of Natural Resources for administrative costs related to the land transfer. Residents have expressed concern about the “divisive and destructive consequences” that the bill would have on the area.

Another bill, SF3480, would require the state to transfer several portions of the White Earth State Forest to the White Earth Band of Ojibwe that total about 155,000 acres.

SF5162 would authorize the state to transfer ownership of parcels of land bordering Mille Lacs Lake that the Department of Natural Resources says it has determined are “not needed for natural resource purposes.” The bill states that the land may be transferred to a “federally recognized Indian Tribe.”

A final bill, HF3783, doesn’t specify specific parcels of land, but would require that tax-forfeited properties within the boundaries of Indian reservations be offered to tribal bands before being offered for sale to other parties. That proposal received a hearing in the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee on March 12, but was laid over for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill.

Correcting the ‘darkness that created this United States’

While the other three proposals, which are solely sponsored by DFL legislators in the House and Senate, have not yet advanced in any committee hearings, advocates for the “land back” bills believe the momentum for the legislation is building.

“This is huge, this is just the start,” said Kirsten Johnson, a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and a research fellow at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs, who focuses much of her work on land back advocacy, about the bill that would transfer 155,000 acres of the White Earth Forest from the state to the White Earth Band.

“I think more tribes are going to do this, especially across northern Minnesota, and I’m excited to see how it goes,” Johnson said in a recent post on her TikTok profile, where she regularly discusses the land back movement.

The four legislative proposals come on the heels of a March 15 ceremony marking the transfer of 1,400 acres of the Upper Sioux Agency State Park to the Upper Sioux Community. That transfer came out of legislation passed last year and signed by Gov. Tim Walz, who said the land back legislation was “the right thing, correcting the wrong that was done, it’s important because it changes the narrative.”

Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan attend a March 15 ceremony marking the transfer of 1,400 acres of the Upper Sioux Agency State Park to the Upper Sioux Community. (Office of Gov. Tim Walz)

Upper Sioux Community Chairman Kevin Jensvold was also on hand at the ceremony and said, “The truth of the matter is there is a darkness that created this United States. It came at the expense of somebody and some peoples,” according to the West Central Tribune.

County officials strongly oppose bills

Earlier this month, elected officials in Becker County, which includes a portion of the White Earth State Forest, approved a resolution opposing SF3480. The county has even hired a lobbyist to oppose the bill on its behalf. Becker County commissioners, along with elected officials from neighboring Mahnomen, testified in opposition to the proposal during a March 7 hearing in the Senate Environment, Climate and Legacy Committee.

“Over the last couple weeks I have received a number of phone calls and concerns about this very significant piece of legislation which could severely restrict the use of previously public lands, for not just the residents of Becker County, but for many Minnesotans that enjoy this land every year,” Becker County Commissioner Erica Jepson told senators during the March 7 hearing

Legislators in that committee voted to table consideration of the bill after about 90 minutes of testimony and debate.

While the DFL holds a 34-33 advantage in the Senate, Democrat Sen. Rob Kupec has told colleagues he is a “solid no” on the bill, according to Sen. Steve Green, R-Fosston.

Becker County Commissioner Barry Nelson testified in opposition to SF3480, which would require the state to transfer the 160,000-acre White Earth State Forest to the White Earth Band of Ojibwe. (Minnesota Senate Media Services/YouTube)

That White Earth State Forest transfer proposal along with the Upper Red Lack land back bill are both authored by Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-Shoreview.

Green, whose Senate District 2 spans the White Earth State Forest and Upper Red Lake, informed his constituents this week that he believes the bills are not likely to advance this session, but expressed frustration over the lack of communication between Kunesh and himself on the proposals.

“Like previous bills brought forward by this author, I was not consulted on a piece of legislation that would greatly affect my district,” Green said. “Members of my district that would be affected weren’t even informed that this bill would be submitted. That isn’t the way things should be done.”

During a town hall organized in Green’s Senate district earlier this month, he said more than 300 people attended to express their opposition to the bills.

“I find this recurring theme alarming,” Green said. “Senators keep introducing bills that infringe on people’s property and their rights, and they’re bringing forward these bills without discussing them with the very people who will be most affected. People are getting blindsided by bad bills. It’s wrong.”


Hank Long

Hank Long is a journalism and communications professional whose writing career includes coverage of the Minnesota legislature, city and county governments and the commercial real estate industry. Hank received his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, where he studied journalism, and his law degree at the University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota native lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and four children. His dream is to be around when the Vikings win the Super Bowl.