Minnesota erects road signs acknowledging Indigenous treaty boundaries

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State transportation officials display 12 road signs in northeast Minnesota to mark the boundaries of a treaty signed in 1854 by the U.S. government and three bands of Ojibwe: the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa , the Bois Forte band of Chippewa and the Fond du Lac band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation installed the first sign Nov. 1 on southbound Highway 61, just south of the Canadian border and near the entrance to Grand Portage State Park.

“This is something that is long overdue,” said Grand Portage President Robert Deschampe. “When people enter the 1854 treaty area, they will know where they are and hopefully learn about the treaties.”

Former Grand Portage president Norman Deschampe first called for signs acknowledging treaty boundaries 11 years ago, said Levi Brown, MnDOT’s director of tribal affairs. The Bois Forte and Fond du Lac bands followed with their own formal demands.

Brown, who is a member of the Leech Lake Ojibwe Band, acknowledged that it has been a long road to get here. He said it is important for the state to recognize and honor tribal sovereignty and the rights of the Anishinaabe tribal nations in the ceded territory.

“We recognize that as a state of Minnesota, we see the tribal nations, we see the treaties, and we respect those treaties. And that’s a huge step,” he said.

The Bois Forte, Grand Portage, and Fond du Lac Ojibwe bands ceded 5.5 million acres of land in northeastern Minnesota to the U.S. government in 1854.

In return, through the treaty, the tribes received small cash payments and guaranteed the right to continue hunting, fishing, and gathering in this ceded territory.

Former Grand Portage president Norman Deschampe first requested signs acknowledging the treaty boundaries 11 years ago. The Bois Forte and Fond du Lac bands followed with their own formal demands. Credit: Minnesota Department of Transportation

But for decades, these rights were not recognized by the state government. In the 1980s, the tribes sued to assert these rights, after a hunter from Grand Portage inadvertently shot a moose outside the reservation boundaries.

The state reached a settlement with the Bois Forte and Grand Portage Bands, and decades later entered into a separate agreement with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Given this long history, Brown said this move by MnDOT means more than just putting up a few signs. He said it was one of the proudest moments of his career.

“It’s a huge deal because it shows that state government and tribal nations can come together – that it doesn’t always have to be divided. We don’t have to be adversaries,” a- he declared.

The 11 additional signs will be placed along other freeways, including Interstate 35 near Sturgeon Lake, over the next few weeks.

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