Sault Tribe prevails in mandatory trust land suit

SAULT STE. MARIE , Mich. — The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians has prevailed in its suit challenging the Department of the Interior’s decision to deny the tribe’s trust land application for land it purchased in Michigan’s lower peninsula.

In a March 5 decision, District Judge Trevor N. McFadden of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia found that the Department of the Interior misinterpreted Section 108 of the Michigan Indian Land Claims Settlement Act of 1997. Section 108 of MILCSA detailed Sault Tribe’s plan for its portion of the funds. It included language that land purchased with the interest of the Land Claims Fund “shall be held in trust by the Secretary for the benefit of the tribe.”

In 2012, Sault Tribe purchased acreage in the lower peninsua for gaming development and subsequently applied for land in trust status under MILCSA. However, the Interior refused to take the land into trust because of other language in Section 108 that the land’s purpose was for “for consolidation or enhancement of tribal lands.”

In 2018, the tribe filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the Secretary of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Interior. Three commercial casinos, the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe filed as intervenors.

In his ruling, Judge McFadden wrote the Interior was mistaken it had authority to make its decision, siding with the tribe’s claim that “its board had exclusive authority to decide that a distribution of Fund income was for one of these purposes, and thus the Secretary had no authority to conclude otherwise.”

Judge McFadden wrote in his opinion, “The Court agrees with Sault on the merits. The Department overstepped its authority when it denied Sault’s request to take land into trust because it believed the Tribe did not acquire the land for a proper purpose. Congress gave the Department no role in policing Sault’s land acquisitions.”

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