Frank LaMere's legacy should include return of Winnebago land
With the recent passing of Frank LaMere, Siouxland has lost an important voice on issues that affect the region’s Native American community.
Over the years, I established a great working relationship with Mr. LaMere. For example, last summer I participated in a “Sioux City Healing Summit” LaMere helped organize. While this pairing of political opposites might have raised a few eyebrows, the cause was important: we shared a common goal of reducing the impact of substance abuse and homelessness on the Native American community.
During my participation in Frank’s summit, I heard him use a phrase repeatedly. LaMere spoke of his particular belief in the importance of addressing “historical trauma” as a prerequisite to healing.
I had heard Frank speak like this before. One afternoon, I had bumped into him at the airport in Omaha. He wanted to talk about another “historical trauma” that he felt could be realistically addressed. As a student of history, I was intrigued, and I asked what was on his mind.
It turns out, the injustice Frank wanted to talk about that day involved the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska’s loss of land wrongfully condemned by the Army Corps of Engineers in violation of an 1865 treaty the tribe had signed with the federal government.
As a proponent of the rule of law, this caught my ear. Treaty rights are mentioned in Article VI of the United States Constitution, which explicitly states that they are the supreme law of the land. I wanted to know more about this charge.
I began to investigate the loss of the Winnebago land, and it turns out Frank LaMere was right. The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska has had their treaty rights violated by the federal government, and their land has been wrongfully taken. The Winnebago land must be returned to redress this particular “historical trauma.”
The story is long, but the Reader’s Digest version is this:
The 1865 treaty with the Winnebago set the eastern boundary of the tribe’s reservation in the center of the Missouri River in the location in which that river existed in 1854. Over the intervening years, the river moved, placing land within the reservation on the Iowa side of the river’s shifting location. Ultimately, the Army Corps of Engineers sought to condemn land on both the Nebraska and Iowa side of the river over the tribe’s objections.
The taking of the tribal land led to lawsuits in federal court on both sides of the river. On the Nebraska side of the river, the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Winnebago Tribe, finding that the land at issue could not be acquired by the Army Corps of Engineers without a formal act of Congress.
On our Iowa side of the river, though, the U.S. District Court in Iowa erroneously sided with the Corps. At the time this case was heard the tribe lacked the financial ability to timely appeal, and when they were able to get their claim back into court, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals held that despite the prior erroneous decision, the tribe was barred by the statute of limitations from pursuing the claim further.
This leaves the Winnebago Tribe in the following position: the courts have acknowledged that their treaty land has been wrongly claimed, the statute of limitations is blocking their efforts at redress, and the only way they can have their rightful title to the land restored is through an act of Congress.
My conversation with Frank LaMere in Omaha’s airport is the genesis of my decision to draft and introduce HR 184 - the Winnebago Land Transfer Act of 2019. This legislation transfers title to the land wrongfully held by the Army Corps of Engineers to the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs where it will be held in trust for the benefit of the Winnebago Tribe as was intended under the terms of the 1865 treaty.
Adherence to the rule of law means adhering to our treaty responsibilities. It would be a fitting tribute to Frank LaMere’s legacy for Congress to quickly pass the Winnebago Land Transfer Act in order to keep our word to the Native Americans, honor the rule of law, and, in Frank LaMere’s honor, repair the “historical trauma” he so deserved to see concluded in his lifetime.
Republican Steve King represents Iowa's 4th District in the United States House of Representatives.