In yet another case of better late than never, the federal government is closer to repaying the 6 Chippewa nations of Minnesota for land and timber deals made more than a century ago – deals that were never honored. It’s a familiar story. The U.S. owes millions of dollars to the Fond du Lac, Bois Forte, Grand Portage, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs and White Earth communities, which comprise the Chippewa tribe. Congress, however, has taken up the matter once more and is debating a $28 million payment to the 6 Chippewa bands. More than 40,000 Chippewa members could receive $300 each. The remaining $16 million would be split among the governments of the 6 bands.
Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said her band plans to divide its share of the money – more than $2.5 million – among its members so that each will get an additional $700, for a total of $1,000. “It will bring some level of closure,” she said, adding that mismanagement of Indian land decades ago cost her reservation dearly.
Of the 100,000 acres within the Fond du Lac reservation’s borders, 80% fell into non-Indian hands. The band has since bought back some of it and now owns about 33% of the land within its perimeters, Diver noted.
Not all Indigenous American communities have been so fortunate. The land seizure included a phenomenon some northern Minnesota Chippewa called “The Wandering 40,” said Jim Northrup, a Fond du Lac Band member and author who lives near Cloquet. “A timber company would buy the stumpage rights on an Indian’s allotted 40 or 80 acres, but then they’d get in there cutting and just keep wandering,” he explained.
The settlement stems from the federal government’s management of the 1889 Nelson Allotment Act, under which some reservation land was allotted to individual Indians, but other plots were ceded to the United States and sold to non-Indians. Proceeds from the sales were supposed to go into a trust fund for the Chippewa.
In many cases, that didn’t happen. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs dipped into the trust fund for maintaining its vehicles and other daily expenses. In 1999, a federal court found that the deal shortchanged the tribes, also known as the Ojibwe, and awarded the multimillion-dollar settlement.
The land comprises 650,000 acres across the six reservations, from White Earth in western Minnesota to Grand Portage at the tip of Minnesota’s Arrowhead country.
Stripping and selling the land deprived the tribe of development opportunities, said Mark Anderson, a Bois Forte Band member and Minneapolis-based attorney for the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.
In 1948 and 1951, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe brought those allegations in complaints to the Indian Claims Commission. The claims eventually formed the basis for the federal government’s agreement to pay the Chippewa $20 million. More than six decades later the government still hasn’t honored those agreements.
It’s not likely the current Congress will approve a lump sum of $28 million. In this tempestuous election year, with unemployment still high and gas prices on the rise, the economy remains like a rock hanging around the Obama Administration’s neck. I’m sure the GOP presidential candidates and other Republicans would twist any deal to reimburse the Chippewa into an example of Obama’s poor handling of financial matters. While they may claim fiduciary restraint, it’s actually code for blatant racism. The Caucasian elite that dominates the federal government always hoped the Indians would just go away, or accept their “place” in society; e.g. sub-human status. Here in North America, Europeans tried to wipe out the indigenous peoples through violence – and, of course, failed. So, their descendants resorted to such machinations as those that befell the Chippewa. When Native Americans – who already had been beaten down by violence and disease – had the audacity to demand reimbursement for all those contracts and agreements, the term “Indian giver” was born.
Many individual Chippewa, including Northrup, don’t find much comfort in what they see as pathetically deficient compensation for what their ancestors lost. “A thousand dollars is (nothing more than) a good night at bingo,” he said. “It should be $28 billion, not $28 million. They’re just trying to make legitimate the theft of Indian land.”
No amount of money or land could repay any Native American community for all the bigotry and exploitation they endured; just like no amount of Social Security can reimburse someone for a lifetime of hard work and putting up with bully bosses, coworkers with bad attitudes and paltry raises. But, as Karen Diver stated, it’s a start toward some degree of justice.