In a February 2017 letter to Lac du Flambeau town chairman Matt Gaulke, Joseph Wildcat, president of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, advised the town of Lac du Flambeau that the tribe would like 29 roads back.
In response, Gaulke said the town, the responsible entity for those roads, would like more time to study the matter.
In his letter, Wildcat noted that the tribe and the town have discussed the rights of ownership and maintenance to several roads and rights-of-way several times of the years. Those roads and rights-of-way, he wrote, are within exterior boundaries of the Lac du Flambeau reservation as created by the Treaty of Sept. 30, 1854.
"The Tribe would like to meet with the town to come to a final resolution on the issue of ownership and maintenance rights and responsibilities of the separate sovereigns over the roads as located on the Reservation," Wildcat wrote. "The last comprehensive review by the Tribe and the town was completed with the assistance of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in or around 2008."
Under the treaty of 1854, the United States government established the Lac du Flambeau reservation and set aside lands for the exclusive use by the tribe, the letter notes. Although some lands within the boundary have since passed from tribal ownership to fee land, Wildcat said "those lands that have not are still held in trust for the Tribe and retain their distinct Tribal character."
"Namely, the Tribe can make use of and exercise inherent authority over such lands," Wildcat wrote at the time. "Although the Tribe retains control over such trust lands, it may not alienate or encumber the land without the approval by the Secretary of the Interior, including the assignment of rights-of-ways."
In the spring of 2017, members of the tribal council and the Lac du Flambeau Town Board met at the Lake of the Torches Casino.
After that discussion, there was at least one public meeting of a town committee where the matter was discussed but since then there's been little, if any, movement on the town/tribe road issue.
Notice to quit
The day before the tribe issued a press release on this topic last week, Gaulke received another letter from Wildcat. The Lakeland Times obtained a copy of the letter through an open records request.
The letter is dated May 17, 2019.
"Chairman Gaulke," Wildcat wrote. "Please take notice that you are hereby required to vacate and quit all maintenance and surrender possession of the Indian lands identified on Attachment A on or before June 3, 2019."
There are six roads - reduced from the original list of 29 in 2017 - identified in the attachment Wildcat spoke of:
Cemetery Road from the intersection of Grey Lake Lane and State Highway 47 to Hwy. 47
East Fence Lake Road from the intersection of County Road F to Hwy. 47
Little Trout Lake Road from the intersection of West Sand Lake Lane to where Little Trout Lake Road ends at Little Trout Lake
Old Prairie Road from the intersection of State Highway 70 to Indian Village Road
Pokegama Lake Trail from the intersection of Cemetery Road to Camp Wipigaki Lane
Wayman Lane from the intersection of Indian Village Road to the end of Wayman Lane.
The letter from Wildcat to Gaulke continued with an ultimatum.
"If the town fails to comply with this notice and remains in possession of, or continues to claim a right of maintenance over, the portions of Indian lands identified in Attachment A, then the town will be in trespass and the Tribe will exercise its rights under section 169.413, Title 25 of the Code of Federal Regulations," the letter states.
"Beginning in the early 1970s, the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians began efforts to regain ownership of our lands and roads under President William Wildcat's administration," the tribal press release states. "Our efforts were revitalized in 2015 after the Tribe began research of relevant documents from the Town of Lac du Flambeau, the United States government, and Tribal archives that showed the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) allocated funding for the construction of various roads on the Reservation beginning in the early 1900s and continuing to 1970."
According to the press release, some of the BIA documents showed when road construction was complete, the roads were entrusted to the town of Lac du Flambeau for maintenance with the clear understanding that ownership remained with the Lac du Flambeau Tribe and the BIA.
"Previous town chairs have acknowledged and documented the true ownership, also recognizing that federal funding for road upgrades were contingent on the roads remaining in Tribal or BIA ownership," the press release states. "Over the last generation, the Tribe and the Town of Lac du Flambeau have had many disputes over expired easements and rights-of-way, with each side taking different stances concerning ownership and control. Where disputes existed over ownership, the Tribe had the understanding the Town of Lac du Flambeau was also maintaining records, but it seems their efforts were marginal."
The town of Lac du Flambeau, the press release asserts, "has shown little regard or interest in working with the Tribe to ensure safe roads for the entire Reservation community."
The tribe has continued to locate documentation solidifying tribal ownership of reservation roads, the release continues.
"Records have been obtained showing the approval of land leases to the federal government gathered by Indian Agents, as they were called at that time, to fund the design and building of roads on the Lac du Flambeau Reservation," states the press release. "It is documented that the Town of Lac du Flambeau accepted these agreements, with the same understanding that ownership remained with the Tribe and the BIA, and the Town would continue to maintain these roads."
Wildcat is quoted in the tribal press release as stating the tribe has, over the course of many years, "made repeated efforts to work with the Town of Lac du Flambeau."
"The safety of the roads on the Reservation is of the utmost importance to myself and the Tribal Council," he said. "We want what's best for the entire Reservation community, and we thought that having government-to-government relations with the Town of Lac du Flambeau would be in everyone's best interest. However, our efforts have been met with untrue accusations, and a complete lack of respect for our burial sites, our Tribal programs and our laws."
The press release also states the tribal council passed six resolutions on May 13 it believes reaffirms "the Tribe's ownership and public authority of six public roads: Cemetery Road, East Fence Lake Road, Little Trout Lake Road, Old Prairie Road, Pokegama Lake Trail and Wayman Lane."
According to the press release, once the tribe assumes "public authority" over th roads on June 3, "residents will see no changes or restrictions to access of their property."
Restrictions on property access had been a concern for many property owners in Lac du Flambeau after Wildcat's February 2017 letter to Gaulke was made public.
In Tuesday's press release, Wildcat said the tribal council has been consistent in "sharing our intent of regaining rightful ownership of Reservation roads, and that we are not setting roadblocks for any resident."
"These issues relate to governmental authority of ownership between the Tribe, the Town of Lac du Flambeau and the United States, and we are pleased to be moving forward and resolving these issues," Wildcat said.
Reached for comment Tuesday after the press release was issued, Gaulke called the letter "interesting."
"I guess I don't ever remember them asking us for our records of maintenance, which we have," he said. "Road projects and roads that have been done. We've given them all the right-of- way records and that type of thing that we've had. They're open to the public and I think all filed by year. We don't ever throw anything out."
As far as ownership issues, Gaulke maintains that during his time on the board the town has never disputed the rights of way or the roads themselves.
"The BIA, when they built those roads, they turned them over to the town for public roadways and maintenance," he said. "We've never told them we own them."
On Wednesday, Gaulke was asked if he'd spoken to Wildcat.
"No, I have not talked to Joe yet but plan to hopefully today," he told The Lakeland Times.
Gaulke confirmed he will call a special town board meeting for Thursday, May 30, a meeting to be held in closed session "on (the) advice of our attorney."
Brian Jopek may be reached via email at email@example.com.
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