MIDWEST TREATY NETWORK
Appeals Court uphold tribe's position in dispute over island
Feb. 25, 2003
WAUSAU, Wis. - A state appeals court Tuesday refused to overturn a tribal referendum that rejected a plan to buy a 26-acre island on a northern Wisconsin reservation for $1.5 million to keep it from being developed into homes by its Colorado owner.
At issue in the dispute is Strawberry Island in Flambeau Lake on the reservation of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
The island, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and considered a likely Indian burial site, is owned by Walter Mills of Aspen, Colo., whose family has owned it since 1910, according to court records.
Mills sought permission from Vilas County in 1995 for a permit to build a home and garage on one of 16 lots proposed for development on the island, court records said. Mills had received approval in 1976 to subdivide the land into lots.
The county denied the building permit, raising several concerns, including that building on the island might disturb human remains linked to a territorial dispute between and Chippewa and Sioux nations decades ago, court records said.
Those concerns led to negotiations to sell the island to the tribe for $1.5 million "subject to approval of tribe membership if needed," court records said.
The tribe determined its profits from operating a Las Vegas-style casino were insufficient for the deal, requiring the use of more than $10,000 of tribal funds held in trust by the U.S. Department of Interior, court records said.
Under term's of the tribe's constitution, that triggered a referendum, held in August 1999, in which the membership rejected the deal.
Subsequent negotiations broke down when the tribe opened the talks with Mills by offering $800,000 for the island, court records said.
Mills went to court, seeking to enforce the original deal by contending the referendum was not needed.
Vilas County Circuit Judge Robert Kinney denied the motion, ruling the election was a political question.
The 3rd District Court of Appeals unanimously ruled Tuesday that Kinney properly used his discretion in refusing to "overturn the decision of a sovereign nation."
It's part of a doctrine that defers to the "judgments of other states or sovereigns out of mutual respect and for the purpose of furthering the orderly administration of justice," the three-judge panel said.
The tribe wanted Mills to pay its legal fees and costs, arguing he filed a "frivolous appeal" of the dispute.
The appeals court disagreed.
"We cannot conclude that Mills' appeal was filed to harass the tribe or that he should have known the appeal was without any reasonable basis in the law," the panel said.
Attorneys for the Mills and tribe did not immediately return telephone messages Tuesday.
ON THE NET
A History of Strawberry Island
A Colorado real estate developer is planning to dig up a historic Native
American battle site located on the Lac du Flambeau . The reservation
got its name when French explorers saw Ojibwe spearfishing with a torch
(flambeau) on a lake at night. Strawberry Island on Flambeau
Lake has been continuously inhabited since the Middle Woodland period,
about 200 BC, and is a rich trove of pottery and tools. The area was
later home to the Dakota (Sioux), who were driven west by the Ojibwe
(Chippewa) -- under pressure by European settlers to the east -- in
the late 1700s and early 1800s. The last major Ojibwe-Dakota battle
in Wisconsin took place on Strawberry Island, leaving behind many dead,
and a huge canoe now on display in the tribal museum.
The Threat to Strawberry Island
The owner 's heir, however, has today opted to build homes on the sacred
island. Mr. Walter Mills of Aspen plans to subdivide the
26-acre island into 16 lots, and build quarter-million dollar homes
on the properties. The tribe has offered to buy the island, but
Mills has steadily upped his asking price to two million
dollars -- far above its market value. The township has granted
Mills a building permit, even though he has not completed the necessary
septic and other tests on the inaccessible island.
Strawberry Island, Lac du Flambeau Sacred Site
by Carol Brown Biermeier, Esq.
Analysis Prepared for the
Tribal Historic Preservation Office,
|The County Board of Adjustments voted in favor of the tribe, but Mills is in turn appealing that decision. The issue is not yet resolved, and public pressure can help immensely.|
Your letters are a simple gesture that can help in protecting a cultural and natural treasure for future generations.