Enbridge Line 3 stands in a long line of Minnesota’s treaty violations

This day in history, Congress creates the ‘White Earth Roll Commission’

The White Earth Nation (Gaa-waabaabiganikaag) is invoking its treaty rights to stop the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline from being built. To date, it’s had no success. For White Earth and other Ojibwe bands and nations, it’s the latest in a long string of treaty abuses.

Let’s look at one other example. On this day in history, June 30, 1913, Congress created the White Earth Roll Commission to determine which White Earth Band members were “full blooded” and which were “mixed blood.” This was not a distinction Native communities made. Congress created these designations so businesses could “legally” steal White Earth’s valuable pine lands.

On one hand, it’s a typical story about people with money and power abusing the system to enrich themselves. On the other hand, it’s a little known story about how the United States decided, in its hubris, that it could dictate who is an “Indian” and who is a “mixed blood.”

Ojibwe men lining up for land allotments, White Earth Indian Agency, about 1890. Photo: MN Historical Society

Before European contact, Indigenous cultures had no concept of private land ownership. Land was a relative, part of the deeply connected web of life, not a possession.

The United States was determined to assimilate Native peoples into western culture. To that end, Congress passed legislation in the 1880s to imposed private land ownership on Native peoples. The federal government did this unilaterally, violating treaties. This was the beginning of the end for Native control of reservation land.

Minnesota’s Congressional delegation pushed legislation to dispossess White Earth members of their lands. (A similar story played out in other reservations, with the exception of Red Lake).

The following chronology is based on the article: Ransom Powell and the Tragedy of White Earth, Minnesota History Magazine, 2012. It’s well worth reading.

The Nelson Act of 1889 resulted in each adult White Earth member an 80-acre agricultural allotment carved out of the reservation. White Earth also have valuable pine lands, which the U.S. government continued to hold in trust.

Congress passed law in 1904 and 1906 that devastated White Earth. They allowed the Department of the Interior to allot adult White Earth members 80 acre of pine lands. It allowed “mixed-blood” White Earth members to sell their individual pine land allotments, excepting minors. Full blooded were considered less competent than “mixed bloods to manage their affairs, but the law allowed them to sell their lands if the Interior Department judged them “competent.”

Within three years of the bill becoming law, settlers and businesses had acquired 85 percent of White Earth’s 829,440 acres at prices well below value.

Legal challenges followed. People claimed that companies wrongfully obtained land from both “full-blooded” White Earth members and minors. One key questions, then, was whether the individual White Earth members who sold their land were “full blooded” or not.

There wasn’t a clear definition. On June 30, 1913, Congress established the White Earth Roll Commission to decide. The scales of justice were broken from the start.

Ransom Powell, right. Photo: Photo: MN Historical Society

Ransom Powell, an attorney for the major timber interests, lobbied to create the commission. His clients wanted the White Earth Roll to show more “mixed bloods” and fewer “full-blooded” Indians, thus clearing the land titles. Powell was appointed as one of the two commissioners.

Powell’s strategy included delay tactics. The Commission didn’t finish its work until 1920, seven years after being created. At that point, White Earth was logged off.

One of the more humiliating aspects of the commission’s work was the pseudo-science employed on White Earth members. The commission hired Dr. Ales Hrdlicka, head of anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution, and Dr. Albert Jenks of the University of Minnesota, to determine who was “full blood” and who wasn’t.

In 1915 and 1916, Hrdlicka and Jenks examined 696 allottees who claimed to be full bloods, comparing their physical attributes to the Pima Indians of the southwestern United States, whom the anthropologists considered the most racially ‘pure’ American Indians. They carefully measured and calibrated hair, eyes, nails, gums, head shape, and teeth of White Earth Ojibwe and compared this data to measurements of the Pima. Another exam involved pressing a fingernail across a subject’s chest to see how irritated the skin became. The more an Ojibwe person’s physical attributes resembled a Pima’s, the more likely she or he would be considered to be a full blood by the anthropologists. They also measured attributes of 100 Frenchmen and 50 Scots, who were, in Jenks’ words, “the two racial groups contributing most of the ‘white blood’ to the mixed blood Indians of Minnesota.” The results were messy and in some cases dubious. Children with the same parents were classified differently, and full-blood children were attributed to mixed-blood parents.

Ransom Powell and the Tragedy of White Earth

Not surprisingly, the process favored Powell’s clients. Only 408 of the 5,173 allottees were deemed “full bloods,” and “306 of them died before the roll was finalized in 1920,” the article said.

In 1985, Congress passed the White Earth Settlement Act, which provided some financial compensation to heirs and helped untangle land title issues.

Still, this is not centuries-old history; the harm is ongoing.

Still to this day, White Earth has relatively very little allotted land still remaining in trust, reflecting the destructive land-grabbing history of the reservation. Currently, the tribe does own around 10% (compared to 6% in 1978) of the land within the reservation, Federal government owns 15%, State owns 7%, Counties own 17%, and Privates ownership is 51%. Individual Enrolled members do hold significant amounts of privately owned fee lands within the reservation and pay property tax to the counties. The tribe also owns land which they must pay property taxes until they can get the land into trust status with the federal government. The trust application to put the land into trust status take years to complete with the federal government.

Minnesota Indian Affairs Council

Today, White Earth also is trying to enforce its treaty rights to hunt, fish, and gather on lands its ancestors ceded to the U.S. government. It says the construction and operation of the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline would violate those rights. Its appeals to state regulators to consider its treaty rights have fallen on deaf ears.

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