This Day in History: Nelson Act Breaks Treaties, Steals Chippewa Land in MN

Knute Nelson
Knute Nelson is not someone who deserves to be honored with a statue in front of the Minnesota State Capitol.

On this day in history, Jan. 14, 1889, Congress approved “An act for the relief and civilization of the Chippewa Indians in the State of Minnesota.Not surprisingly, that’s a euphemism. The act did not provide relief. Quite the opposite, it violated treaties, stole Native lands, and otherwise did great damage to the Chippewa people.

(Note: The names Chippewa, Ojibwe, and Anishinaabe all refer to the same people; their name for themselves is Anishinaabe, which is used in the remainder of this blog.)

This 1889 act is commonly referred to as the Nelson Act, after Minnesota Congressman Knute Nelson who pushed it through. He would go on to become both a Minnesota Governor and U.S. Senator. Though most people probably don’t know it, Nelson holds a prominent place of honor at the Minnesota State Capitol; his statue is on front steps overlooking the Capitol mall.

I am sure you could stop people on the Capitol steps and few would be able to name  Nelson let alone know anything about him. So here’s what you should know about the man, the statue, and his namesake law.

The Nelson Act passed just 31 years after Minnesota statehood. Minnesota’s new residents wanted to push the Anishinaabe (and the Dakota) far west as possible.

Nelson’s statue was installed in 1928. According to the statue’s inscription, he served for three years in the Civil War, he was “a brave son of Norway,” and he was “a wise statesman uncompromising in support of the principles in which he believed.”

That seems like high praise, until you ask yourself, “What were the principles in which he believed?” Apparently it was not the Rule of Law, but Might Makes Right.

According to Wikipedia:

[The Nelson Act was 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. … These actions were illegal and violated the treaties which the US had made with the tribes …

The Nelson Act had at least three profoundly negative effects on the Anishinaabe people.

First, like the federal Dawes Act passed two years earlier, the Nelson Act divided communally-owned tribal lands into privately held lots. Each head of household got a set number of acres. The process, called “allotment,” was to encourage subsistence farming. By switching from communal ownership of land to individual ownership, it made it easier for white settlers to buy it.

Second, after Anishaabe households got their set number of acres, there was still reservation lands left over. The government declared this land as “excess” of what the Anishinaabe needed — and sold it to settlers.

Third, the allotment process was part of a broader effort at assimilation and undermining Native culture and lifeways.

A couple of observations and questions:

  • Why do we still have this massive statue to Knute Nelson on the front steps of the Capitol when for all practical purposes, no one knows who he is or what he did?
  • Let’s say we did a really good job of education — we add interpretation to the statue and tell Nelson’s story. Would this still be a man we would want to honor with such an important space?
  • Some might argue it is unfair to judge a man outside his historic context. Further, we don’t want to forget this history. We shouldn’t just get rid of the statue. Still … how can we tell this tragic story without giving the impression that we honor these acts? Could the statue be moved to another location?

I know that I wrote that no one remembers who Knute Nelson was, but if anyone remembers, it is the Anishinaabe people. He is the personification of land theft. So what does it say to the Anishinaabe people — when they come to the Capitol to lobby or learn — that this man has a place of honor? That is a very unwelcoming image. It says: “It doesn’t matter what kind of agreement we make with you when you are here, we can  still do what we want.”

Sadly, one expects that any effort to de-Knute the Capitol steps would raise an uproar. That conversation needs to happen. It’s time to move the statue somewhere else and find new more inspiring and inviting art for the Capitol’s front door.

2 thoughts on “This Day in History: Nelson Act Breaks Treaties, Steals Chippewa Land in MN

  1. Leave the statute and change the information about Knutson to be more balance and accurate regarding what he did and consequences .teach people the facts !


    • I agree the statue needs better interpretation. I don’t want the statue destroyed. I do believe it should be moved to a different location. Nelson should not have a place of honor at the Capitol when he did such dishonorable things.


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