American Indian land rights and sovereignty activist Marvin Manypenny died in White Earth Sunday at the age of 72. Friends and family remember him as a tireless advocate for his people, as well as a fierce critic of tribal and U.S. governments.
Fellow activist Raymond Bellcourt grew up with Manypenny on the White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota. He said Manypenny was attending seminary in the Twin Cities when long-simmering disputes over the fate of White Earth’s lands drew him back to the reservation.
White Earth members had lost hundreds of thousands of acres of land through deception, confiscation or unfair laws since the late 1800s. To push for the return of some lands, Manypenny and other activists in the early 1980s formed the group Anishinabe Akeeng, which translates to “the people’s land.”
“We were all of one mind that we wanted our lands back,” Bellcourt said. “White Earth is not for sale is one of the slogans we had.”
Manypenny and others testified in 1985 before a U.S. Senate committee on Indian affairs: “We know our ancestors were ripped off,” Manypenny told the committee. “The spirit of our people is still here. We are the people.”
In 1988, Manypenny was quoted in the New York Times accusing federal officials of ''dereliction” of their responsibilities on White Earth land: “They screwed up, and consequently our estate was stolen out from under our noses.”
The group also filed federal lawsuits challenging the loss of White Earth land. But Manypenny’s targets weren’t limited to land issues. Bellcourt said the activists crisscrossed the country speaking out on issues ranging from hunting and fishing treaty rights to racism. He said they were often a “thorn” in the side of tribal authorities in White Earth as well.
“Every time the executive committee would meet, we would be there,” Bellcourt said. “The last 40 years, it was constant protests and activism on our part.”
Manypenny was quoted repeatedly through the years by MPR News, with many of his comments critical of tribal authorities. In 1998, he condemned tribal government, saying it was imposed by the United States government: “What I’m talking about is true self-determination, that either we’re going to succeed or we’re going to fail, and it should be left up to us.”
In 1999, Manypenny argued that the creation of the White Earth tribal police force violated the tribe’s constitution and could be “turned into a goon squad.” He also criticized tribal councils and courts for what he saw as a lack of accountability and independence.
Bellcourt described Manypenny as a “scholar” of the tribe’s constitution and treaties, and said he was respected throughout the six bands of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.
“He always had the people's interest at heart,” Bellcourt said. “It was never about money, it was never about personal gain, it was always about the protection of the people who had no voice, who had no way to protect themselves."
John Morrin, another longtime activist, said Manypenny never stopped fighting, even in his later years. As recently as 2016, Manypenny put his name forward in the race for White Earth tribal chair, although he lost the race.
“He was a champion of the people,” Morrin said. “He wasn’t elected, neither of us were, but he took on the responsibility of trying to help people.”
Bellcourt also remembers that Manypenny was fiercely dedicated to his family. Manypenny is the father of Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan.
“That’s all he could talk about for a long time there, how proud he was of her that she was going to get elected to lieutenant governor and hopefully be able to help her people,” Bellcourt said.
Flanagan was able to spend time with her father while he was in hospice the last few weeks. She said the house was constantly filled with visitors.
“People saying goodbye, people expressing gratitude with what my dad had done for them and for our tribe,” Flanagan said. “I was struck by how many shoes were by the door, and by how many people loved him.”
For Native people who struggle to be visible to the broader public, Flanagan said her father was a strong and consistent presence in advocating for Native sovereignty and self-determination. He wasn’t afraid to share his opinions with anyone, Flanagan said, even her.
“My dad oftentimes would say, ‘My girl, I want to burn down the system, and you want to get into the system and change it from the inside out,’” Flanagan said. “That’s a pretty good summary of how my dad operated and how I operate.”
Before Manypenny died, Flanagan said she had time to tell him she loved him, and to promise she’d do everything should could to help their people.
“I’m just so proud to be his daughter,” Flanagan said. “When he passed, there was, frankly, a lot of wisdom that went with him. And we will miss him terribly.”
A wake for Manypenny was scheduled Monday night at White Earth Community Center.