Dakota descendants sue landowners and other Indians to reclaim part of southern Minnesota

Statue outside the Jackpot Junction Casino in Morton and the site of contested land
Statue outside the Jackpot Junction Casino in Morton and the site of contested land
Doug Wallick via Flickr

Descendants of Dakota Indians are suing southern Minnesota property owners to set up a new reservation on land that was once promised by the federal government. A class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday seeks to evict the current inhabitants of 12 square miles northwest of New Ulm and asks for monetary damages based on 150 years of what's being labeled as trespassing.

The argument stems from an 1863 act of Congress that set aside 7,680 acres for the band of Mdewakantons who had either stayed out of the U.S.-Dakota War or protected settlers.

See also:
Colleges decline to compete against UND because of Fighting Sioux nickname

That promise was never kept because "the feeling among whites is such as to make it impossible for [the Mdewakantons] to live there in safety," according to a Secretary of the Interior letter cited in the present lawsuit.

By the 1890s, the feds had sold all the parcels to third parties and issued land patents in Redwood, Renville, and Sibley counties, according to Erick Kaardal, the Minneapolis-based attorney who claims to represent more than 20,000 Mdewakanton descendants.

"For Indians to have right and title to this land since the 1860s and to have us treat them this way is absurd," he says.

Today the land belongs mainly to farmers, local governments, school districts, the episcopal diocese, and the Lower Sioux Indian Community. Denny Prescott, president of the tribal council, says he's still trying to wrap his head around how he and his people went from being fellow Dakota descendants to defendants in a land dispute. But he withheld any further statements.

The other defendants we spoke with also declined to comment, saying they had yet to be served with the official paperwork. David Torgelson, the Renville County attorney, notes that someone who specializes in land treaties will probably need to be appointed and review the case. The news came as a surprise, he adds: "We hadn't heard any rumblings in advance."

Still, this isn't the first time that the loyal Mdewakanton descendants have filed claims at the federal level. Curt Brown, a Star Tribune reporter who's written at length about Dakota history, notes that the same group unsuccessfully sued three Minnesota tribes years ago, seeking money from casino proceeds. He sheds some light on the bad blood:

This case is expected to kick up long-simmering inter-Dakota tensions between the plaintiffs and the three federally recognized Dakota tribes -- the casino-wealthy Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, the Prairie Island Indian Community near Red Wing and the less well-off Lower Sioux, who would be kicked off their reservation if the suit succeeds.

All three recognized tribes are expected to challenge this suit after the last round of litigation brought into question how their tribal membership was determined.

At the root of this latest lawsuit, too, is class and identity. Kaardal says the three other groups in the region treat his clients as though they don't exist: "That's how serious it is."

-- Follow Jesse Marx on Twitter @marxjesse or send tips to [email protected]

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >