This Day in History: The Nelson Act Defrauds Minnesota Chippewa of Land and Timber; Update on Paiutes and the Oregon Standoff

This day in history, January 14, 1889, marks the day of great injustice done to Minnesota’s Chippewa people. On this day, Congress passed the Nelson Act, legislation pushed by Minnesota leaders that unilaterally broke treaties and took tribal lands.

The legislation was named for Minnesota U.S. Rep. Knute Nelson. The bill’s official title was something of a whitewash: “An act for the relief and civilization of the Chippewa Indians in the State of Minnesota.” It was anything but.

(Note: The Chippewa are also called Ojibwe and Anishinaabe, the traditional name they call themselves. All three names refer to the same people.)

According to Wikipedia, the Nelson Act: “was a federal law intended to relocate all the Anishinaabe people in Minnesota to the White Earth Indian Reservation in the western part of the state, and to expropriate the vacated reservations for sale to European Americans.” It paralleled the federal Dawes Act; it broke up communally-owned tribal land and distributed it to individuals. After individuals got their designated acreage, any left over land was declared surplus and available to sell to European settlers.

This bill had contradictory goals, neither of which brought “relief” to the tribe. On one hand, the legislation represented an effort to isolate all Anishinaabe peoples on the western border of the state. On the other hand, it tried to assimilate them into western culture, agriculture, and concepts of private ownership.

The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council provides this history:

The Dawes Act of 1887, Nelson Act of 1889 along with the Clapp Act of 1904 and Snyder Act of 1906, enabled the rapid division of the reservation and allotments were given to individuals of 80 acres to head of household and 40 acres each to their children. There were many schemes to defraud individuals and minors from their land. Around the turn of the century much of the original Reservation land was illegally taken from allottee or their heirs through tax forfeit, minor sales, full blood or administrative sales. The timber was sold and cut and much of the land quickly passed into non-Indian ownership.

After lengthy legal battles, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims awarded the Chippewa Tribe $20 million in 1999 to compensate descendants for the losses their families suffered under the Nelson Act, according to

Disputes lingered about how to divide the money among the tribes and their members. It wasn’t resolved until 2012 when Congress approved a $28 million settlement agreement. The Bois Forte Reservation and the White Earth Reservation both published settlement explanations. After fees and administrative costs, each individual band member received $300 and each of the six Chippewa bands received $2.4 million. (It seems pretty minimal. I’m guessing given the option of the $28 million vs. getting the land back, they’d take the land.)

As a post script, a statue honoring Knute Nelson (who also served as Governor and Senator for Minnesota) is prominently displayed, greeting visitors on the front steps of the Capitol. (We have written about the statue in a previous post.)

Update on the Oregon Standoff and the Impact on the Paiute Community

Indian Country Today has an important update on the Bundy standoff at the Malheur Wildflife Refuge in Oregon, bringing in an often-missed perspective. The article describes how the presence of armed white militants and government inaction are creating fear for the Paiute people in the area. The article, titled: We Don’t Want Bloodshed: Armed White Militants in Oregon v. Paiute Tribe, says that Indian men are being intimidated and the militants can walk around town unchallenged. People are worried things could escalate.

Tribal council secretary Wanda Johnson told ICTMN: “We feel frustrated that these people can come and go in town and resupply. People are taking things out there and feeding them. Like they are out there in on an outing. It’s so frustrating.”


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