A New Breath – White Earth Chairman Fairbanks

Michael Fairbanks, (right) was inaugurated Aug. 16 as the new White Earth Tribal Chairman. Joining Fairbanks at the event at Shooting Star Event Center in Mahnomen were White Earth Tribal Council Reps. Kathy Goodwin and Umsy Tibbetts. (Photo by Gary Padrta/White Earth Public Relations)

By Winona LaDuke

I’ve been to a lot of inaugurations in my life, they are always full of promise, hope and, more recently dread. The inauguration of Michael Fairbanks as White Earth Tribal Chairman, felt light to the heart. Seeing our leader in traditional regalia, dancing to the drums, was a powerful moment in my memory. The community seemed relieved and hopeful; and the Chairman danced hard for the people, a genuine moment, not contrived; straight from the heart.

The unexpected death of Chairman Terrence Tibbetts set off a spin of political instability on the reservation; as the interim leadership closed programs, laying off 80 plus employees and changing direction. There is a lot of discord and fear on the reservation. Still, we are a nation of people, related by blood, history, culture, land and a hope for the future of all our children.

We face challenges; since our 1867 treaty which created this reservation, and was intended as the homeland for the Anishinaabeg. Our people came from near and far to this promised land, our refuge in a time of land thefts, genocide, and the rise of timber and railroad barons – all intent upon taking Native lands. Our people, skilled hunters, wild ricers, basket makers and farmers, produced much food for those who came from elsewhere to Minnesota, and our people have a long history of agreements and treaties – one of the first international treaties, between our people and the Iroquois in l712 in Montreal (the One Dish One Spoon Treaty.) In that treaty, we reaffirmed that we all hunted in the same territories and that we should work together as we all eat from the same dish. That is true today.

What happens at White Earth is important, not only to the Anishinaabeg, but to the entire region and North America. That’s why Enbridge’s latest tribal liaison, Robert Durant, ran for Tribal Chairman, with corporate backing. Canadian multinationals are interested in influencing our tribal leadership. Durant lost resoundingly, and Fairbanks received the first two thirds approval vote of any recent election. That’s a mandate, a unified voice for hope.
White Earth is wealthy. Our tribal land base has supported the regional economy, and tribal money pours off the reservation to border towns quickly – our wealth is the wealth of all. Our White Earth people represent half of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, and our territories and land span from Superior, to the border of North Dakota, reaffirmed in treaties, including the l855 and l867 treaties. Omaa Akiing, the land to which the people belong.

Minnesota style colonialism has made our land poor. Our ancestors drank the water from the streams and lakes, fed ourselves from fish, buffalo and moose, and our wild rice was abundant. In the short one hundred and fifty years since that time, lakes have been contaminated, over half the wild rice crops destroyed by “management practices”, our trees stolen from our lands, our moose and buffalo relatives, all but obliterated, and our people forced into a systemic poverty and deep trauma. We live in a post apocalyptic world.

Today, we are faced with poverty, and our health is compromised; opioid and suicide epidemics plague our communities, diabetes ravages our villages, and we fear the wintertime and the heating bills, that’s called fuel poverty. This is a known.

In many ways, Native people are a microcosm, and the Miner’s Canary of society; ie: we bear the worst burdens of poor policies. The fact is, that leading the White Earth nation at any time is a challenge. In the time of Trump, with his endless assaults on Native sovereignty, civil rights, the environment, and human dignity, it is a stressful time to be a tribal leader.

At the same time, the possibilities to make a beautiful life again for the Anishinaabe are good, the path is there. White Earth has many highly educated tribal members, and tribal members who are steeped in Indigenous knowledge. Nurture our people and we can be healthy. Our reservation has more agricultural lands within the borders than any reservation in Minnesota; that could be a part of an organic, local and international food and hemp economy.

Until this past administration, White Earth led the nation in tribal hemp development; something which the interim administration banned. Our tribe continues to have excellent renewable energy potential – and the most land upon which to nurture that, of any tribe in Minnesota, particularly wind power. And, facing another winter of fuel poverty, the work at Ponsford based 8th Fire Solar, manufacturing solar thermal panels out of Ponsford, shows good promise for an industry throughout the north country, saving up to 20% of household heating bills.

Our tribe can move beyond lateral oppression and trauma. That means healing; and that’s a commitment made by Chairman Fairbanks in his inauguration speech – healing and well being. There are many paths to healing, and more than that, a beautiful future. We all wish the Chairman strength, courage, wisdom and compassion. Maamaawii, altogether, we make that minobimaatisiiwin – that’s how strong nations are made, together.