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New York Times
11 Feb 2023

NextImg:With a Land Dispute Deadlocked, a Wisconsin Tribe Blockades Streets

LAC DU FLAMBEAU, Wis. — The yellow barricades and chained-together concrete blocks went up late last month, cutting off dozens of houses from roads on the Lac du Flambeau Reservation in northern Wisconsin, where soaring evergreens and the papery bark of birch trees punctuate the skyline.

To tribal leaders, who for years tried and failed to negotiate payments for portions of those streets that cross their property, the blockades were an assertion of sovereignty, a statement that they would defend tribal land and demand respect.

To the homeowners on the wrong side of the roadblocks, many of them white, the barricades were a startling disruption to nearly every aspect of their routines, a literal barrier to getting to work or running errands.

With the tribe seeking $20 million to resolve the dispute over the four snowpacked back roads, residents have hunkered down, left town or hiked across frozen lakes to reach their cars and jobs. The standoff has prompted a visit from Wisconsin’s governor and statements of concern from members of Congress.

But even as a standing-room-only crowd packed a public meeting on Wednesday, the barricades have remained and conversations among the town government, two title companies and the tribe have not yielded a deal.

“Imagine if someone built a road through your property without your permission to access land on the other side of your property,” President John Johnson Sr. of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians said in a statement after the roadblocks went up. “A title company then tells your neighbor they are guaranteed access forever to their property through your land over the illegally built road. How would you feel about it?”

The dispute in Wisconsin’s Northwoods is, at its most basic level, about trespassing and property rights. But it is rooted in generations of U.S. policy toward Native Americans, whose lands were whittled down to small reservations, portions of which were then privatized and sold to nonmembers.

ImageA panel of five people, flanked by flags, sits in front of an audience.
Residents, many of whom feel like pawns in a dispute that extends beyond their neighborhood, spoke at a town hall meeting where the barricades were discussed.Credit...Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times
The Town of Lac du Flambeau, Wis., maintains the roads, portions of which are on tribal land.Credit...Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

Native American tribes, which are recognized by the federal government as sovereign nations, have repeatedly invoked that status during property disputes in recent years, including in debates over a highway through Seneca Nation lands in New York, over Covid-19 checkpoints on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota and over a proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall on Tohono O’odham lands in Arizona.

In Wisconsin, several of the marooned neighbors said they respected the tribe, recognized historical wrongs to Native Americans and did not dispute tribal ownership of portions of the roads. But they stressed that their homes are not on tribal property and said they felt like collateral damage in a far bigger fight.

“It’s not only going to happen in this state, it’s going to continue to happen, and somebody needs to step in and try to help,” said Marsha Panfil, who lives behind a barricade and on several recent days has not been able to open the restaurant she runs with her partner. “We’re not responsible for taking land away from people. We came here to live in our little piece of the United States of America.”

Dave Miess, a photographer whose home is also cut off from the road system, said he and his wife had no idea that the road use was contested until after they bought their property about three years ago.

“We believe that the tribe should be compensated for the easements on those roads — we have absolutely no issue with that whatsoever,” said Mr. Miess, who left a vehicle with a neighbor on the other side of a frozen lake before the barricades were placed, and who hauled his groceries across the ice using children’s sleds. “I think for us as the homeowners, we just all feel like we’re kind of pawns in all of this.”

Mr. Johnson made clear that the tribe’s complaint was not with the individual residents, but rather with the Town of Lac du Flambeau’s government, whose territory overlaps with the tribe’s and whose workers have maintained those roads, and with two title companies that insure properties beyond the barriers.

Mr. Johnson, who along with other tribal leaders did not agree to be interviewed, also faulted the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which he said for years ignored questions from tribal leaders and showed an “utter lack of recognition” of the tribe’s status as a sovereign nation. Officials with the bureau also did not agree to an interview.

Angelique EagleWoman, the director of the Native American Law and Sovereignty Institute at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in Minnesota, said the Lac du Flambeau leaders were on solid legal ground.

Lac du Flambeau, Wis., overlaps with the Lac du Flambeau Reservation.Credit...Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times
Sandy Schlosser and Joseph Hunt, who are neighbors, have been crossing a frozen lake to access their homes.Credit...Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

“The story of tribal nations in the United States is one of land dispossession: Over and over again, attempts are made to decrease the tribal land base, and it places tribal leaders in the position of continually defending whatever still remains of the tribal land base,” she said.

The details of the Wisconsin dispute are complicated. Decades ago, when developers built homes for nonmembers of the tribe on private land along some of the reservation’s 260 lakes, they secured right of way easements allowing roads to the homes to pass over tribal ground. The agreements for the four roads now blockaded expired more than a decade ago, officials said, and the tribe said it has been trying to negotiate an agreement for years. Reaching a new deal involves input from the town and from two title companies, Chicago Title Insurance Company and First American Title Insurance Company, with clients behind the roadblocks.

An estimated 65 families own property affected by the closures, a lawyer involved in the negotiations said. Town officials did not know how many people were stuck because the roads include a mix of full-time residences and vacation properties primarily used during the summer.

Bob Hanson, an elected supervisor for the Town of Lac du Flambeau, said long-strained communication and valid feelings of disrespect by tribal officials had made solving the road issue more difficult. The town government, he said, had limited finances.

“My perception is that they’re simply looking for respect,” Mr. Hanson said of the tribe. “They want their government to be respected as a valid and effective government. Sometimes that happens — sometimes it does — but often, I think they end up feeling like they’re getting no respect.”

Bridget M. Hubing, a lawyer retained by the title companies for many of the residents, said her clients had tried to reach a settlement but that the $20 million the tribe was seeking far exceeded past precedent. First American Title said in a statement that it had made a “good faith offer on behalf of our insured homeowners to the tribe” and sought mediation. The tribe said in its own statement that its price included compensation for road use in the years since the prior easements expired, as well as its legal representation during the long negotiations.

In a letter on Wednesday, the town chairman, Matthew Gaulke, suggested that the town pay the tribe about $64,000, the amount of revenue it received from a tax on the roads the past 10 years, plus tax revenue going forward, in exchange for the tribe maintaining the roads.

Native Americans and white people have lived alongside one another for generations in Lac du Flambeau, a rural area about 260 miles northwest of Milwaukee that is popular with vacationers. Many in town said relations were generally cordial, and they spoke of friendships across racial lines. But there was a clear divide in how the street dispute was viewed, along with a shared concern that hurt feelings and increasing social media vitriol could escalate.

Bob Hanson, a supervisor for the Town of Lac du Flambeau, said valid feelings of disrespect among the tribe have made solving the road problem more difficult. Credit...Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times
The right of way easements expired more than a decade ago. Credit...Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

“I’m looking for answers just as much as the next person, trying to find out exactly what’s going on, and people pointing fingers at everybody,” said Gil Chapman, a tribal member who attended a recent town meeting where residents voiced frustration and pressed for some sort of compromise. “It’s not the homeowners’ fault, and it’s not the tribe’s fault.”

Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat who met with tribal leaders last weekend, described the disagreement as an “ongoing private dispute” and said “my priority as governor is encouraging everyone in the area to engage amicably and peacefully” to reach a deal. Mr. Evers and Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, also sent a letter on Wednesday to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, saying the “situation is untenable for all parties” and calling for federal help to reach an agreement.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs said in statement that it would continue supporting negotiations. “It is important,” the statement added, “that people seeking access to the tribe’s lands communicate directly with the tribe.”

Some officials have called on the tribe to reverse course.

State Representative Rob Swearingen, a Republican whose district includes much of the reservation, said the tribal president “made his point that he can do this and he has every right to do this,” but that it was “time to take these barricades down.” Representative Tom Tiffany, a Republican whose congressional district includes Lac du Flambeau, said the barriers created public safety concerns. (Tribal officials have promised to allow ambulances and other emergency services to pass through if needed.)

“Neighbors work together to find solutions; they do not hold each other hostage,” Mr. Tiffany said.

But among tribal members, there was support for their leaders forcing the issue. Jeanne M. Wolfe, a tribal member and the director of the reservation’s library, said there had been plenty of time to reach a deal before the tribe placed the barricades. She said she saw a direct connection between long-ago policies that allowed non-Natives to acquire land on reservations and the current disputes.

“Read the history,” she said, “and look at it from our point of view.”

Behind the barricades, though, a sense of powerlessness has grown.

“I wouldn’t have invested my life savings in a home had I known I had no access to it,” said Joseph Hunt, who after a recent town meeting parked a vehicle at a neighbor’s place, walked down a steep, snowy hill and trudged across an iced-over lake toward his house.

About 65 families own property that has been affected by the barricades. Credit...Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

Kitty Bennett contributed research.