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Tribes Sue State Over Property Taxes On Reservation Lands

Native American tribes sued Wisconsin officials for trying to tax their land, renewing a battle they thought had ended more than 150 years ago.

By treaty in 1854, the Chippewa tribes claim their land was forever exempt from property taxes. Until recently, that seemed to be true.

Now the tribes want a court to settle the dispute and an injunction in LAC Court Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin v. Walker.

Property Taxes

In their complaint, four tribes say state and local officials are trying to "to assess, collect and enforce taxes under Chapter 70 of the Wisconsin Statutes upon properties owned in fee simple by the tribes and their members." The plaintiffs say the tax plan violates the Supremacy Clause and the 1854 treaty.

The federal government negotiated a treaty "for a cession of lands in Minnesota and Wisconsin, including the vast mineral lands west of Lake Superior," the plaintiffs say. In return, they claim, the government promised permanent, tax-exempt status for reservation lands.

"The 1854 treaty does not authorize the imposition of state taxes of any kind on the property of the tribes located within the reservations created therein," the lawsuit says. "None of the historical documents relating to the negotiation of the 1854 treaty indicate that Indians were told that the lands reserved for them by the 1854 treaty would be subject to property taxes."

According to reports, those tax "protections have been, at best, inconsistent."

"Inconsistent, Confusion"

The Chippewa say the confusion stems from the General Allotment Act, which the Supreme Court interpreted in 1992. The court said the act "provided unmistakably clear authorization for states to tax land that had passed into fee simple absolute status as a result of this statutory scheme."

In the past three years, Wisconsin and 11 towns have started to assess the Chippewa land for taxes. In the lawsuit, the tribes say their reservations are not subject to the General Allotment Act.

"Certain defendants have begun assessing the reservation fee lands under the presumption that such lands are subject to state taxation and erroneously placing the burden of proof on the tribes or their members to demonstrate otherwise," their complaint says.

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