Boots & Sabers

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0852, 11 Mar 23

Homeowners blockaded in Vilas County

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News earlier this week.

After years of wrangling through a convoluted mess of contracts, bad record keeping, broken promises, state, local, federal, and tribal laws, the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has decided to blockade dozens of non-tribal families in the dead of winter. In a dramatic escalation, tribal officials are demanding $20 million in order to lift the blockade.


The root of the issue rests in the 19th-century Dawes Act when the federal government broke communal tribal lands into parcels to be allotted to tribal families as private property in exchange for U.S. citizenship. Some of those private parcels wound up in the hands of non-tribal people through sale, foreclosure, and other means by which private property changes hands. Now, more than a century later, those private parcels are owned by non-tribal families who are being blockaded.


The conflict is over the roads that traverse tribal land to reach those private parcels. The easement by which the homeowners were granted permission to use the roads expired about ten years ago and a protracted negotiation began. The relevant parties are the Lac du Flambeau tribe, two title companies, the Wisconsin Town of Lac du Flambeau, the U.S. government, and the state of Wisconsin.


At the risk of simplifying a very complex legal issue that is imbued with generations of justified distrust and unethical behavior, the disagreement really is straightforward. When the easements expired, the tribe wanted money to grant new easements. The tribe also wants temporary easements to give them the latitude to renegotiate the payments every time they expire. On the other side, the title companies and town wants permanent easements, and they want to pay less money than the tribe wants. Both sides appear to have had their moments of bad behavior and have been unable to resolve the impasse.


Complicating the issue is the fact that the roads in question have been largely built with money from federal taxpayers. According to congressman Tom Tiffany, who represents the area, the tribe has received about $213 million in federal funding since 2013 through the Tribal Transportation Program. Since the roads received federal funding, the general public is supposed to have access, but tribal authorities argue that tribal law supersedes such federal requirements.


On January 31, in a grotesque escalation, the tribe blockaded the four artery roads with concrete blocks and wire. About 60 homes are sealed off from the outside world except for emergencies. Even then, tribal authorities must be called to open to roadblocks ahead of time. Some residents have been forced to abandon their homes entirely while others are having to use snowmobiles and sleds to cross the frozen lakes to get supplies, medical care, work, and attend school. With the spring thaw looming, they are weeks away from losing that frozen lifeline.


To lift the blockade, the tribe is demanding $20 million for a 15-year easement. This is an exorbitant sum for a simple easement, but the tribe seems content to hold non-tribal homeowners hostage in order to extort the sum. For comparison, the most recent offer that the tribe rejected was for about $1.1 million plus all future state gas tax revenues from the town for perpetual access.


The most innocent party in this whole dispute is the one suffering the most — the homeowners. They bought their properties in good faith and have been dutifully paying their taxes to maintain the schools, emergency services, and, yes, roads. Yet their property values have been obliterated, their lives are being disrupted, and their safety is being endangered.


The situation has reached a crisis point and real leadership will be needed to resolve it. It is unacceptable that one group of Americans should be blockading another group of Americans as a negotiating tactic in a legal dispute. This is not about sovereignty or some noble cause. It is about cold, hard, cash. If the tribe will not immediately lift the blockade and return to the negotiating table, the governor must step in to protect the homeowners from being used as hostages.


Time will tell what a fair resolution looks like, but any deal derived from the duress of innocent homeowners is illegitimate and an affront to justice.


0852, 11 March 2023


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