Land, treaties and the new round of Indian Wars

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Back, L to R: Dale Hanks, Winona LaDuke, Roberta Brown, Danny Kier, and John Morrin.­ Front, L to R: Jerry Rawley, Marvin Manypenny, Vernon Bellecourt and Beebz Keezer.

By Winona LaDuke

The l867 treaty was intended to provide a secure homeland for the Anishinaabe people forever.  The treaty was signed by our leaders and by President Andrew Johnson. Agreements should be honored by nations.

The treaty provides for many things; the 837,000 acres of land, maples, the wild rice, the 47 lakes, the lifeblood of our people and explicityly says, “… the lands so held by any Indian shall be exempt from taxation and sale for debt and shall not be alienated except with approval of the Secretary of Interior and in no case to any person not a member of the Chippewa…” Article 7 of the 1867 Treaty. That’s not what happened. Land was taken illegally, and the U.S. and Minnesota did not do the right thing for over a century. But now the state is trying to make it right.

Senator Mary Kunesh introduced  HF 3480 which  would return the l60,000-acre White Earth state forest to the White Earth band of Anishinaabe. It follows a land return to the Lower Sioux in mid March and represents a way to begin healing the wounds of Minnesota’s past, and comply with the law.  A number of tribal leaders testified on the bill and many tribal members saw this as a hopeful turn in a long history of deceit by the state.

In contrast, Senator Steve Green, a White Earth tribal member, led the opposition to the bill to transfer land to his own tribe. Speaking at the hearing, he talked about how poor the counties were and that this would cause a loss of more tax revenue. Curiously, the land which is proposed to transfer is not taxable. (Green also opposed the 2016 purchase of  2000 acres of Potlatch Lands by the tribe using state funding, and supported Enbridge’s Sandpiper and Line 3).

In turn, Mahnomen and Becker County Commissioners seemed confused when they testified at the state hearing. Senator Paul Utke referred to the bill as a “land grab” and David Geray, a Mahnomen County Commissioner talked about being blindsided by the land transfer. “Mahnomen County is entirely within the reservation.  We didn’t find out about this until we were down here.”

That’s sort of surprising considering that these are elected officials who should understand the law and history.  Here is a bit of history:

• This land is Wenji bimaadiziiwin, that which gives us life.

• The intention was to make all Anishinaabe move to White Earth. That’s why there are Pembina, Mississippi, and Pillager people on the reservation. But some people, like the Non Removable Mille Lacs band members refused to move to White Earth. They saw the swindling was already underway and stood their ground – to this day.

• Our land was coveted. Senator Knute Nelson secured the passage of what was to be known as the Nelson Act in l889, not only illegally annexing four townships, but also violating the treaty by creating a system to divide the land-allotments. That’s how the big pines were cut. And that’s how Red Lake lost three million acres of land at the same time. That’s also how you get to be Governor Nelson.

• Then came Moses Clapp, and Halvor Steenerson who attached riders to bills securing access to more land, violating the same treaty and creating the place for Mahnomen County. Literally, counties which are located on the White Earth reservation carved themselves out of the reservation illegally. Now that’s a land grab!

Stealing Land from Indians

There are many ways to steal land from Indian people, and most of them happened here on the White Earth reservation.  It was something like Killers of the Flower Moon:   land speculators, lumber companies, and thieves.

Some land is taken with a gun, some is taken by a pen. Three hundred white farmers suddenly became mixed-blood allottees, illegal tax forfeitures of tribal trust land, forced fee patents, minor sales, and more illegal fullblood sales, pushed it further. These thefts were the subject of no less than l600 lawsuits, but these cases were blocked.

By 1910, the people had been devastated, three-quarters of the allotments had been lost, and the forest was falling. The President sent Warren Moorehead out to investigate. His observation:  Whole families blinded by trachoma, and land speculators all around, tuberculosis spreading like wildfire as people lived in refugee camps.   He found diseases and death everywhere.  We were almost wiped out as a people.   Moorhead received death threats for telling the truth and returned to Washington.

The White Earth people were made refugees in our own land. Between l9l5 and l930 most tribal members were forced to move off reservation, we have been the poorest people in the state of Minnesota since that time.

There have been many lawsuits, but none stopped the theft until the Zay Zah case in l977 which was filed by Clearwater County against Zay Zah, or George Aubid. The Minnesota Supreme Court found that Clearwater County had illegally attempted to tax forfeit a tribal allotment. Finally, someone stopped the land grab.

Anishinaabe Akeeng was formed by tribal members, including leaders like Dale Hanks, Marvin Manypenny, Phyllis Libby,  Jerry Roy,  Lummi Vanwert, Richard and Raymond Bellecourt, Lowell Bellanger, Stanley Goodwin, Margaret Smith, Tom Neeland,  and many more to demand justice, which meant land. Anishinaabe Akeeng proposed that the federal government should use the $l7 million and buy out willing landowners.

The national disgrace of land theft and the fact that non-native people now had discovered they had “clouded title” whipped up Indian Hating. Groups like the United Townships Association and Protect American Rights and Resources organized to oppose Native people, and then they moved to Congress. Representative Arlen Stangeland told tribal members that we would get back our land “when hell freezes over” and proposed $3million  to “clear title” to basically 700,000 acres of land through Congress.

This was not taken well, so we ended up opposing the White Earth Land Settlement Act. That’s the law that  pushed under the carpet the illegal land takings of White Earth, leaving the lands in the hands of those who took it illegally, and paying a total of around $17 million to the tribe in compensation, as well as promising the return of l0,000 acres of land. WELSA was passed, just like the Clapp Act, in a suspension of the rules when about 43 members of Congress were present. The land transfer was never fully completed  and Minnesota continued to prosecute tribal members for hunting, fishing and wild ricing well into the 21st century.   

Anishinaabe Akeeng ultimately filed two federal lawsuits in Washington DC;  Manypenny v. US and Littlewolf v. US. Both of those were dismissed. This left the tribal members with no recourse, and that is when the White Earth Land Recovery Project was formed in l989.

What is right and just is the return of lands which were taken in violation of the l867 treaty. The Treaty is the law of the land, and nations should keep their word. This bill represents a way towards justice without displacing a single non-Indian landholder, and upholds the treaty responsibility of the US government. “We’ve managed these lands long before the inception of any of these counties.” Eugene Sommers, District 1 Representative said, “For them to question our competency in management of these resources is a big slap in the face. History is repeating itself.”

As we watch the new round of Indian wars come to the Deep North, we want to invite you all to Giiwedinong, the museum on treaty rights in Park Rapids.