See more of the story

The University of Minnesota says it plans to return thousands of acres of forest land that were seized from the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa more than a century ago.

"This is the right time to talk about repatriation of this land, returning it to Fond du Lac and what that would mean going forward," university President Joan Gabel told the Board of Regents in a meeting Thursday afternoon.

University and state officials are still working to determine what steps they'd have to take to complete the transfer and how long that process might last. Gabel, acknowledging "the road we still have to travel," described the university's announcement as an important first step.

Leaders of the Fond du Lac Band hadn't commented as of Thursday evening. They have for years been asking the university to return the 3,400-acre swath of land that sits inside the Fond du Lac Reservation, just a few miles from the city of Cloquet.

Tribes across the state have in recent years increased their calls for the university to make amends for actions "rooted in institutional racism," noting that multiple campuses were built on land that was once home to Native American people.

The U.S. government enacted laws in the late 1800s that ultimately allowed federal officials to strip millions of acres of land from Native Americans and sell them, primarily to white settlers. Throughout that process, some land that had been reserved for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa went to lumber companies in Cloquet — with the caveat that after they removed the timber, the land would go to the university.

The university established the Cloquet Forestry Center on that spot in 1909 and continued to acquire land until 2003. The university uses the area for teaching and for research. Recent projects have focused on efforts to understand how much carbon the forest stores and what causes wolf pup mortality, among other issues.

It's unclear precisely what steps officials will need to take to return the land — some of which is owned by the university and some of which is owned or restricted by the state.

Curtis Yoakum, an assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Administration, said university and state officials are researching the parcels of land to better understand their history and financing. The results of that effort will determine whether they need approval from state lawmakers or whether state administrators could take action. The university expects it will need approval from regents for some portions as well.

Gabel said the university expects to have further discussions with tribal leaders and provide opportunities for public comment as it seeks to better understand concerns from the tribe and from researchers and others with an interest in the land.

"Given the road that we still have to travel, it is a little premature to speculate on things like timing or what things will look like going forward," she told regents.