This Day in History: White Earth Loses Valuable Pine Forest

This is the first in an occasional series on significant anniversaries in history for Native American people.

On April 28, 1904, the U.S. Congress passed the Steenerson Act, increasing individual land holdings on the White Earth Reservation. It appeared to answer a request from the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) people on the reservation, but combined with the Clapp Rider, the legislative package ended up benefiting the state’s lumber industry.

Some quick background. Since 1889, the U.S. government had pursued a policy of breaking up tribally-held reservation lands into individually-owned parcels. The goal was to assimilate Native Americans into main stream society by making them individual property owners. As the website for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe notes:

The logging industry soon realized a huge profit could be gained if they could get access to the timber and land on the allotments being held in trust by the federal government. Thus began the lobbying of state legislators to enact laws allowing loggers access to timber on tribal allotments.

Melissa Meyer’s book: The White Earth Tragedy: Ethnicity and Dispossession at a Minnesota Anishinaabe Reservation, provides an account of how this played out here. Existing law had created individual allotments of acres each on White Earth. Minnesota U.S. Rep. Halvor Steenerson of Crookston got a law passed doubling the allotments to 160 acres each. Some people on the reservation were so pleased that they started an effort to adopt Steenerson into the tribe and give him his own allotment.

Existing federal law also had protected White Earth’s valuable pine lands from being allotted to individual families. These lands could not be fairly split. However, expanding the number of acres families would receive from 80 acres to 160 acres would require pine lands to be included in allotments. Minnesota U.S. Sen. Moses Clapp of Fergus Falls had helped Steenerson pass his legislation to expand individual allotments. Clapp worked simultaneously to pass a rider to allow individual Indian landholders to sell the timber on their allotments. Meyer concludes:

… the two measures took on an insidious quality when introduced in tandem. The Clapp Rider provided for disposition of the timber and the Steenerson Act supplied extra land from which timber could be taken.  The benefits for lumber companies were not lost on Judge Marsden C. Burch, who recognized that the two measures were ‘introduced a day apart and became law one week apart.’

In her book, Tracks, Louise Erdrich writes: “The inevitable catalog of abuses — from illiterate tribespeople being conned out of their parcels by unscrupulous lumber companies to crooked representatives writing their own claims — is considerable.”

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