Lac du Flambeau tribe blocks roads over lapsed contracts

The Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa closed four tribal roads after contracts to drive over their land lapsed in 2013, blocking over 50 households from access to their properties.

By Nathan Denzin | Here & Now

February 10, 2023 • Northern Region

FacebookRedditGoogle ClassroomEmail

The Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa blocked four tribal roads after contracts to drive over their land lapsed in 2013, blocking over 50 households from access to their properties.

It’s been two weeks since the Lac du Flambeau tribal government blocked four access roads that run through its lands, and residents say they’re not sure if the chains will come down any time soon.

“Unless all the parties are really willing to sit down in person, I’m concerned that this could drag on for a while,” said Dave Miess, a local resident affected by the closures.

The dispute that blocked the roads has taken course over the last 10 years.

Starting in 2013, agreements for passage on the roads lapsed between the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and title companies that insure most of the houses in the area. Since then, no new agreement has been in place. The roads in question cut through tribal lands, which, according to Lac du Flambeau, means the non-tribal homeowners have been trespassing.

Miess owns a home in the town of Lac du Flambeau, a Wisconsin municipality encompassing the area, and says he and his neighbors were given about two weeks’ notice before the barriers went up. That warning by the tribe allowed residents to find transportation to and from their houses after the barricades were put in place.

A still image from a video conference meeting shows Dave Miess siting in a room in front of a wall and next to a window with half-open curtains.

Dave Miess doesn’t think anyone in particular is at fault for the road closures, but hopes the situation is resolved soon. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

Lac du Flambeau President John Johnson Sr. issued a statement on Jan. 31.

“The Town of Lac du Flambeau and the title companies have not always acted in good faith to resolve this issue. The Tribe is fed up with the title companies’ games,” Johnson Sr. said.

First American, one of the title companies involved, offered a response to PBS Wisconsin.

“Through the attorney representing the impacted homeowners, First American Title has made a good faith offer on behalf of our insured homeowners to the tribe based on historical precedent from prior negotiated right-of-way easements,” the company stated.

Although First American said it has made an offer, the barriers have remained in place.

Because of these roads being blocked, about 55 households were left stuck in a situation where their cars could leave, but would not be allowed back in.

“I think the thing that we’ve tried to say is that the people that don’t have responsibility and the people that ultimately are paying the price for this are the homeowners,” said Miess.

In order to get groceries and other supplies, Miess and his family walk across Ross Allen Lake to their car, which is parked at a neighbor’s house located on a public road.

A street sign reads "E. Ross Allen Lake Ln." in front of trees.

East Ross Allen Lake Lane is one of four roads that the Lac du Flambeau tribal government has placed barricades. (Credit: Courtesy of WJFW-TV)

“If we need to go get groceries, for example, our kids are all grown but we have their sleds — their little plastic sleds — and we walk across the lake and go to our neighbors and get in the Jeep and only get as much stuff as we can fit on the sleds because it’s got to make it back,” he explained.

Miess said the trek across the lake isn’t too bad for his family, but for others in his community, the trip isn’t possible.

“We do have a person and she actually has a high schooler that is actually a special needs child. She and her child actually had to leave and move back to Iowa to some family members because they literally couldn’t,” he said.

While the roads are blocked, Vilas County Sheriff Joe Fath said he has been in contact with the Lac du Flambeau Tribal Police Department, who said they have directed twice-daily wellness checks. Police said they have delivered medication to at least two residents and have offered food box deliveries.

Signage reading "Lac du Flambeau Town Hall" is affixed above a door in a brick building.

The Town of Lac du Flambeau has been meeting regularly in February 2023 to figure out what it can do to remove barriers along roads owned by the Lac du Flambeau tribal government. (Credit: Courtesy of WJFW-TV)

Tribal officials also said residents have access to EMS services, propane, mail delivery and garbage disposal.

The tribal government issued a statement on Feb. 3 addressing these issues.

“We understand that this is a difficult time for … residents, and [we] have tried to show compassion for their predicament,” the statement read.

However, Miess said those wellness checks are far less frequent than the tribe claims.

“I can tell you that they’ve been back in our neighborhood twice in that time,” he said. “And I know that some of the people have maybe only had a check in one time.”

Miess also said food box deliveries and garbage collection have yet to be implemented.

While residents wait for a solution that would grant them access to the roads again, Gov. Tony Evers met with tribal leaders on Feb. 6, and said the meeting was productive.

“As this is an ongoing private dispute, my priority as governor is encouraging everyone in the area to engage amicably and peacefully with each other while working to bring all parties to the table to resolve this issue quickly,” Evers said in a Feb. 6 statement.

The Lac du Flambeau tribal government put out a statement on Feb. 3 saying it is hopeful the issue can be resolved in a timely manner, while town officials met Feb. 7 to consider possible legal action.

A wood road barrier with "tribal roads" painted on it and two concrete blocks connected with a metal chain sit in front of a road covered in snow, with trees in the background.

Four different barriers on tribal-owned roads were put in place on Jan. 31, 2023 as the Lac du Flambeau tribal government and insurance companies negotiate land easements. (Credit: Courtesy of WJFW-TV)

One possible short-term solution — requested by the town and First American — would be to negotiate new easements in-person and lift the barriers while negotiating. However, no action had been taken by Feb. 10.

Despite the frantic pace all parties have moved at since the tribe imposed the blockade, Miess said nobody is sure when the barricades will actually be lifted.

“We need these people to all take responsibility for this, to get this thing figured out, get these roads unblocked, get the easements in place,” said Miess. “Make sure the tribe is compensated fairly for their easements and we can all get back to [our] lives.”

Statement to the Communities We Serve

There is no place for racism in our society. We must work together as a community to ensure we no longer teach, or tolerate it.  Read the full statement.