A Native American tribe is barricading and holding dozens of families hostage in a small northern Wisconsin town in response to an ongoing multimillion-dollar dispute over road infrastructure.
The tense dispute – between the Lac Du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribe and residents of Lac Du Flambeau, Wisconsin – comes about a decade after the tribe began negotiating new right-of-way agreements with local property owners regarding roads that cut through tribal territory. After negotiations deteriorated in late January, tribe members initiated a barricade.
“They’ve got me barricaded in and I can’t get out,” David Kievet, a local resident, recently told the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
During an emergency town hall meeting in January, a 90-year-old property owner characterized the tribe’s actions as “extortion” and said it was “a hostage situation,” according to local outlet WAOW-TV.
Tribal leaders said they were ultimately forced to begin blocking and barricading roads after years of “disingenuous” negotiations with title companies representing the town’s property owners. And they recently doubled their monetary demands from $10 million to $20 million for a 25-year easement, noting that residents have continued using the roads despite the expiration of a previous right-of-way agreement.
Title companies have pushed for a permanent right-of-way agreement that doesn’t expire after 25 years.
“This entire situation could have been avoided if the Town and the Title Companies would have negotiated in good faith and implemented fairly standard easement agreements used by municipal governments,” the tribe said in a statement last month. “The Town of Lac du Flambeau and the Title Companies, however, have repeatedly tried to circumvent the negotiations with the Tribe over 10 years.”
“By acting disingenuously and delaying the process of securing 25-year easements, we arrived at this point,” the statement continued. “Over 10 years, anyone who has dealt with government and lawyers, can just imagine how quickly the costs add up.”
Overall, residents living in 65 homes in Lac Du Flambeau have been prevented from using the road network that represents the only way to exit the town. The tribe has only permitted roads to be used for emergency medical services, propane, mail delivery and garbage removal.
The barricade, which has continued for more than a month, sparked a federal lawsuit on Feb. 28 from owners of 21 homes and businesses who argue their freedom of movement has been severely restricted by the tribe.
“This action seeks injunctive and declaratory relief from the Defendants’ ongoing violations of federal law that have caused, and continue to cause, an imminent threat to the safety, health and well-being of, and irreparable harm to, the Plaintiffs and others similarly situated,” the lawsuit stated.
“Plaintiffs seek an injunction requiring Defendants to remove the roadway barricades that they have, or caused to be, erected to block, in violation of law, ingress and egress over four public roads and a declaratory judgment of this court that such roads must be, and remain, open to public access,” it added.
The lawsuit also accused the Lac Du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa of taking the law “into their own hands” and blocking roads that federal law requires to be open and available to public use. The plaintiffs said the tribe had installed cameras and threatened anyone who tries to use the roads.
Meanwhile, negotiations between the tribe and title companies have continued with involvement from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, federal lawmakers, the state of Wisconsin and town leaders.
On Feb. 23, Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Wis., who represents Lac Du Flambeau’s congressional district, blasted the tribe in a letter to its president John Johnson, saying the tribal council has attempted to “scapegoat” other parties and noting the tribe has received $213 million in federal funds since 2013.
“The council’s decision to take this unprecedented action is putting the health, safety and well-being of dozens of town residents at risk,” Tiffany wrote to Johnson. “Tribal officials have publicly cited a right-of-way dispute as justification for cutting off access to these vital roads in the dead of winter.”
“But with each passing day, these actions look less like a negotiation and more like an extortion racket,” he said.
Tiffany added that the longer the roadblocks remain in place, the more likely lawmakers will be forced to end the dispute via legislation.
Lac Du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.