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Warroad Ojibwe want federal recognition

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Don Kakaygeesick says his Ojibwe ancestors have lived in the Warroad area for centuries. Kakaygeesick's great-grandfather and several other relatives are buried near a Warroad city park, where their graves are marked by traditional Ojibwe spirit houses. (MPR photo/Tom Robertson)
There's a group of Ojibwe Indians who have lived in and around Warroad for centuries. Their ancestors were there long before the town was. But today, the group is not recognized as a tribe by the U.S. government. As far as the federal government is concerned, the people aren't even considered Indians. Now, the Warroad Ojibwe community is beginning the daunting task of seeking that federal acknowledgment. It's a process that could take decades.

Warroad, Minn. — Don Kakaygeesick of Warroad is beaming with pride. He's sitting on a couch in a trailer home near the shore of Lake of the Woods, digging through a bunch of files. It's hard to believe what he pulls from a plain, white envelope; a faded document of historic importance. It was drafted in 1905 and is signed by then President Theodore Roosevelt.

"This is the original land patent, giving (land to) our great-grandfather, Kakaygeesick, or otherwise known as Everlasting Sky," said Kakaygeesick. "And as you can see, this is the original, because there's the seal on there. There's Theodore Roosevelt's signature."

Don Kakaygeesick says the tattered document is a key piece of evidence. It shows that 100 years ago, the federal government recognized his Ojibwe community as Indians. The land grant was one of two in the Warroad area that gave the Indians a total of about 215 acres of land.

What the federal government really wanted at the time was for the Warroad Indians to move, either to the Red Lake or White Earth reservations. But Kakaygeesick says his ancestors had lived in the Lake of the Woods region for centuries and they refused to leave.

The 1905 land deal allowed them to stay. But it meant they were not part of a recognized tribe. They essentially lost their identity as Ojibwe Indians, at least in the eyes of the federal government.

Today, the federal government recognizes their land as Indian land. But it doesn't recognize the owners of that land as Indians.

The Ojibwe community in Warroad number in the hundreds. There isn't much left of their original land grants -- just a six-acre lot on the shore of Lake of the Woods. It used to span 100 acres. But a nearby dam built years ago raised the level of Lake of the Woods and flooded most of the property.

The land is now used for Ojibwe cultural events. There's a sweat lodge there where they hold powwows and spiritual ceremonies. Don Kakaygeesick says the land is sacred.

"This means a lot, because, you know, this is the last stronghold of our nation," says Kakaygeesick. "I mean, this is really it. It is the last that's truly owned by the nation, our Warroad Indian people."

The Indian community in Warroad has family and cultural ties to the Canadian Ojibwe just across the lake. Many of the Warroad Indians are recognized as Indians by the Canadian government. But at home in the U.S., they're not. That means they're not eligible for education funding, health care, housing or any of the other entitlements given to Indian people who are part of recognized U.S. tribes.

Experts familiar with the history of the Warroad Indians say the non-recognition of the Warroad group is an anomaly and an injustice. Bruce White, a freelance historian and anthropologist from St. Paul, does research on Indian treaties and early Minnesota history.

"They're basically a community that's kind of fallen through the cracks," said White.

White says the Warroad group has a strong case to be formally recognized.

"Given their history, it's hard for me to understand why they aren't recognized," said White. "I don't think anyone can say with a straight face that they're not Ojibwe. So how can we explain that they're not part of a federally recognized group?"

Getting that recognition isn't easy. Petitioners seeking tribal recognition typically go through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and have to meet stringent criteria. White says assembling the necessary proof can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and he says the BIA bureaucracy is extremely slow.

Given their history, it's hard for me to understand why they aren't recognized. I don't think anyone can say with a straight face that they're not Ojibwe.
- Bruce White, historian

"It's a very long process," he said. "There's a very long waiting list of hundreds of groups that have started the process. The BIA only considers a few a year. So it could be 20, 30 years before a group could get considered, even considered through that process."

BIA officials admit the process can take decades. More than 300 groups have applied for federal recognition since the process began in 1978. Since then, the BIA has given recognition to only 15 groups. It's denied recognition to 19 others. The rest have either given up, are still working on gathering evidence for their case, or are just waiting for their turn to come.

White says applicants have another option. They can seek an act of Congress. That's what the Warroad group is hoping will happen. Don Kakaygeesick has been contacting Minnesota's U.S. Congressional delegation, trying to garner support.

Congressional approval is a longshot. Many groups around the country are seeking recognition so they can operate tribal casinos. The spread of gambling is unpopular with lawmakers, but Kakaygeesick says that's not the intention of the Warroad community.

"Red Lake already has a gaming facility here in Warroad," said Kakaygeesick. "Our goal is not to look for gaming. What we need to do is, we've got to stress that, you know, we've been here. We were here all this time. We just need to go forward because we want to preserve our culture."

But there's more at stake than cultural identity. Kakaygeesick says parents want what's best for their children. He says kids would have a better chance of success if they were given the same entitlement benefits that other Indian kids get in the U.S.

For Kakaygeesick's brother, Robert, the lack of medical benefits in the U.S. prompted him to move to Canada. Robert is an American citizen, but he lives on an Ojibwe reserve in Canada, where he's recognized as an Indian. There he gets free medical coverage and other benefits from the Canadian government.

Robert Kakaygeesick says it's frustrating not being acknowledged in his own country.

"It's like, my buddy over there recognizes me as a Native person, and then my friend over here says, 'Well, no, you're not a Native, according to our files,'" he said. "But I know who I am. I know I'm a Native person. I know our traditions. I know our values, I know all these things. I just happened to have ancestors that lived in Canada, which gave me this treaty card."

Even though Kakaygeesick's great-grandfather, known as Everlasting Sky, was not recognized as an Indian by the U.S. government, he was, ironically, a widely known symbol of the Ojibwe. People wrote articles about Everlasting Sky and painted his portrait. He's said to have been 124 years old when he died in 1968. His face still appears on postcards displayed prominently at the Warroad Historical Society.

Former Warroad Mayor Ruth Stukel is president of the Historical Society. She says the Warroad Indians are an important part of the region's history and they have lots of local support.

Stukel says there's no doubt in her mind they should be recognized by the federal government.

"It's really too bad that they have to fight so hard to get this thing," Stukel said. "They've lived here as long as I know and they're good citizens. They want to do what's right. I think they're deserving of being recognized as a group or a tribe."

The Warroad Indians have started an internet petition seeking support for their efforts. They'll continue to ask lawmakers for support, as well. One of their long term goals is to build a cultural center on the group's last remaining piece of land.

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