The federal Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against the Wisconsin town of Lac Du Flambeau, accusing it of trespassing upon an indigenous Chippewa reservation.
According to CBS News, U.S. Attorney Timothy O’Shea filed the complaint in Madison earlier this week.
O’Shea, writes CBS News, is seeking a court declaration that the town, located near the Michigan border in Northern Wisconsin, is violating the territorial integrity of the Lac Du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
According to Wisconsin Public Radio, O’Shea and the Department of Justice allege that the town failed to renew expired right-of-way easements for four roads, all of which provide access to homes within the reservation.
The homes, adds W.P.R., are all owned by non-indigenous residents.
However, all four of the easement agreements—which were approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the tribe in the 1960s—expired between 2011 and 2018.
The Department of Justice is seeking a court declaration, unspecified damages, and a potential “ejection from further unauthorized and unlawful use of” the Chippewa band’s property.
Somewhat interestingly, the lawsuit alleges that Lac Du Flambeau officials proactively contacted residents living along the affected easements, saying that the town’s board of supervisors “intends to protect the road as a Town road.”
Lac Du Flambeau also encouraged residents to “not engage in further communication with” the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
While the lawsuit could help protect the tribe’s territorial integrity, University of Wisconsin-Madison Indigenous Law Center Director Richard Monette told W.P.R. that—while the case may have a legitimate legal foundation—litigation may not be the best way to resolve the dispute.
According to Monette, litigation could have a negative impact on continued relations between the town of Lac Du Flambeau, its residents, and the Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
Monette also told Wisconsin Public Radio that the federal government has sought to establish its standing to file the lawsuit in its capacity as a sovereign and as a trustee for the tribe.
“If they truly are serving on their own behalf as a sovereign, well, there’s an easy response to that,” Monette said. “Why didn’t you act like a sovereign and resolve this with your sovereign powers at the appropriate time?”
Speaking to W.P.R., Monette said that it would have been better had the Chippewa tribe sued the U.S. Department of Interior for failing to properly manage right-of-way agreements as a federal trustee.
The dispute between the tribe and the town, notes CBS News, “came to a head” in January, when the Chippewa barricaded roads leading into the town, allowing non-tribal property owners to use them only to obtain food, fill medical prescriptions, and undertake other necessary activities.
The tribe demanded that the title companies representing the property owners pay $20 million to remove the barricades and consent to a 25-year easement agreement.
While a judge later afforded property owners some relief, ordering that the roads be re-opened for 90 days in exchange for a token $60,000 payment, the dispute remains largely unresolved.
In the meantime, the Department of Justice has asked that a court award damages and issue an order “ejecting the Town from the Band’s lands and permanently prohibiting the Town from occupying or using the Band’s lands” without authorization from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Chippewa tribe.