By Chris Knopf
A “legacy” can be a two-edged sword. On one hand, a “legacy” can mean something valuable that is conveyed from the past or present for the betterment of the future. On the other hand, a “legacy” can refer to a heavy burden on future generations, such as the legacy of discrimination and intolerance.
Within the next two weeks, the Minnesota Legislature and Governor Mark Dayton will determine Minnesota’s legacy with respect to the opportunity to protect the natural resources of our state. At issue is 2,000 acres of forests, prairie, and wetlands in northwest Minnesota, efforts by the White Earth Nation to protect it, and efforts by some state leaders to block Native American access to Legacy Funds to buy it.
The land has excellent habitat for gray wolves, black bears, whitetail deer, bald eagles, golden-winged warblers, and many other species. Meandering through part of the property is the Wild Rice River, which feeds nearby Lower Rice Lake, one of the most productive wild-rice lakes in the entire state.
The land is within White Earth Reservation, established by an 1867 treaty between the United States government and the Ojibwe people. Originally, the Ojibwe owned the land collectively, but this changed with the passage of federal laws in the late 19th century, which transferred the land from communal ownership to allotments of 80 acres to individual adult Ojibwe.
In other parts of the country, European Americans eyed Indian land for farming or mining; at White Earth, they focused on timber. By 1900, the St. Croix River Valley had been depleted of good commercial timber and the timber companies looked westward to White Earth. At that time, Minnesota was home to three of the four largest lumber mills in the world and they needed to be fed.
Once reservation lands had been transferred to individual ownership, private companies had various ways of securing it. At White Earth, the primary means of prying land ownership from the Ojibwe was by means of a mortgage. Timber interests typically paid an Ojibwe individual about $275 to secure a mortgage on the 80-acre allotment with the interest due in advance. In a non-cash economy, the Ojibwe had no way to make the mortgage payments. With a three-year period from roughly 1906 to 1909, 85 percent of the land within the approximately 1,300-square-mile reservation passed from Indian to non-Indian ownership. Included in this transfer was the 2,000 acres White Earth now seeks for environmental protection,
The land loss at White Earth remains one of the bleakest chapters of Minnesota’s history.
Fast forward a century to 2008. Minnesota voters, including members of White Earth Nation, overwhelmingly passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution. The Legacy Amendment aspires to create a better future for all Minnesotans by providing funds to protect natural resources, create parks and trails, and support the arts.
In 2014, White Earth Nation applied for a $2.2 million Legacy grant to buy and protect the 2,000 acres, which remains owned by a timber company. White Earth Nation would permanently protect the land’s wildlife habitat. White Earth Nation has also agreed that the land would be open to hunting by all Minnesotans – both tribal and non-tribal members.
A citizen-legislative council recommended that White Earth Nation receive the Legacy grant. However, in the spring of 2015, the Minnesota Legislature stripped White Earth Nation’s project from the Legacy funding package, the only project to be removed.
Undaunted, White Earth Nation again applied for a Legacy grant to buy and protect the 2,000 acres. Once again, a citizen-legislative council recommended that White Earth Nation receive the grant.
Unfortunately, this spring, the Minnesota House of Representatives once again stripped White Earth Nation from the funding bill. In a revealing twist, the project itself remains in the bill; however, the House of Representatives removed White Earth Nation as the grant recipient and, instead, substituted the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The House took this action even though DNR did not apply for the Legacy grant and White Earth Nation has an agreement to buy the land from its current landowner. This action by the House makes it unambiguously clear that the legislative body considers the land worthy of protection, but does not feel that an American Indian nation, White Earth Nation, is worthy of receiving the Legacy funds.
All is not lost. White Earth Nation remains in the Senate version of the Legacy bill. In the upcoming days, the Senate and House will form a conference committee to reconcile the two versions of the bill. If the Senate and Governor Dayton remain steadfast in their support, White Earth will receive the Legacy grant and protect the 2,000 acres.
So what will be Minnesota’s legacy?
Will it be a legacy of exclusion in which our most powerful elected state officials prevent an American Indian nation from receiving Legacy funds? Or will it be a legacy of inclusion in which American Indian people have the equal opportunity to protect our shared natural resources?
We will know the answer by May 23rd, the day on which the Minnesota Legislature adjourns. If you would like to shape Minnesota’ legacy, contact your state representative, state senator, and Governor Dayton and let them know how you feel. Help leave a legacy for which all of us can be proud.
Chris Knopf works for the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, but wrote this blog in the capacity of concerned citizen.