White Community Silence in the Theft of Land, Oil from Native Peoples

People in power have a history of taking advantage of Native Americans to profit from their land and natural resources, including oil. It is not just the rich and powerful, however. In order for these things to happen, the majority community has to give its approval, even if it is just through its silence.

Today, large energy companies are pushing for crude oil pipeline projects that affect Native peoples, and do so without their consent. The pipelines cross sacred lands, sacred waters, and/or areas where Native peoples have reserved hunting and fishing rights. Two current examples are the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in North Dakota and Enbridge Line 3, a proposal to expand and reroute a tar sands oil pipeline through northern Minnesota.

Native American peoples are small in number and do not have a strong political voice. Standing up to large companies, powerful interests, and unsympathetic communities is an uphill battle, with an ugly history.

Minnesota Public Radio ran a piece Monday headlined: In the 1920s, a community conspired to kill Native Americans for their oil money: (It is a book review of the “Killers of the Flower Moon”, by David Grann.) The article describes how the Osage tribe, like other Native American tribes, were forced west by advancing white settlers. The Osage eventually settled on a barren part of Oklahoma, land that no one else wanted. What people didn’t know at the time was that underneath this infertile ground was lots of oil. According to the book review:

… in the early 20th century members of the tribe became spectacularly wealthy. They bought cars and built mansions; they made so much oil money that the government began appointing white guardians to “help” them spend it.

And then Osage members started turning up dead.

I recommend the article. It is a more detailed version of a story that Indian Land Tenure Foundation President Cris Stainbrook related in a talk to Healing Minnesota Stories in 2015. (Summary here.)

Here is how Stainbrook explained the scheme. Under the laws of the time, Indians were deemed incompetent to own their own land; the government held it in trust. There were exceptions to these competency laws. For instance, Indian women who married white men were declared competent to own land. (It didn’t work the other way for Indian men who married white women.) This exception had dire consequences. An Indian woman would marry a white man, and the woman would meet an untimely death. The white men would inherit the property — and the oil.

What the MPR book review adds to the story is how many white community members were complicit in this murder and theft.

David Grann describes how white people in the area conspired to kill Osage members in order steal their oil wealth, which could only be passed on through inheritance. “This was a culture of complicity,” he says, “and it was allowed to go on for so long because so many people were part of the plot. You had lawmen, you had prosecutors, you had the reporters who wouldn’t cover it, you had oilmen who wouldn’t speak out, you had morticians who would cover up the murders when they buried the body, you had doctors who helped give poison to people.”

Those who did try to investigate were killed, too, the story said.

While this is a horrific example, such land theft schemes were not unique to Oklahoma. They happened in Minnesota, too, Stainbrook said. The other way Indians could get declared competent to own their land was by joining the military. This fact was turned against the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) in Minnesota. According to the summary of Stainbrook’s talk:

In Minnesota, Indian men signed up for military service in World War I at a high rate. Without knowing it, they would be declared competent to own the land. Instead of the land being held in tax-free trust status, it would go on the property tax rolls — and then become tax delinquent. They would come home from the war and their land had been forfeited and sold on the county courthouse steps. Big chunks of [Indian] land would be lost to tax forfeiture.

This scheme, too, must have required tacit agreement of politicians, government employees and community members.

Which brings us back to the issue of pipelines. Given this ugly history (and this is only a small part of the ugly history) those in power should be going the extra mile to make sure that Native peoples are heard and treated fairly regarding these pipeline decisions. And those of us in the majority community need to speak up to make sure Native voices are heard, or again be complicit.

Let’s start with DAPL. The pipeline skirts the Standing Rock reservation (barely), so Standing Rock couldn’t stop it by denying an easement. But other treaty rights should have been taken into consideration — treaty rights to lands outside the reservation that were never ceded but simply taken. The Standing Rock Nation got little if any consideration from local North Dakota communities. In fact, the water protectors were met with community-sanctioned violence.  Their rights and voices were conveniently ignored because the energy companies hold much more political influence than Native Americans.

The courts still might intervene, but it shouldn’t have come to that.

Enbridge Line 3 still is early in the approval process. Enbridge has proposed abandoning an old and failing pipeline and replacing it with a new and larger pipeline. The current pipeline crosses the Leech Lake and Fond du Lac reservations. Enbridge’s proposal includes a new route, avoiding both reservations (but now crossing the Mississippi headwaters region). Both the old route and the new route cross large areas of northern Minnesota where the Anishinaabeg retain hunting, fishing, and wild rice rights, according to the Treaty of 1855.

Here is a map by Honor the Earth that shows the current and proposed route for Line 3.

Will those rights be recognized, or will they be squashed? How will local communities respond?

Stay tuned for more coverage.

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