Talking Sense

Tensions build as White Earth Nation tries to assert authority over state forest land use

a man rests his chin on his hands as he listens
White Earth Tribal Council Representative Eugene Sommers and land specialist Jacob Syverson listen during a meeting with Becker County commissioners on April 9. They discussed proposed legislation that would return White Earth State Forest land to the White Earth Nation.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The White Earth Nation has long desired the return of White Earth State Forest lands that it says were illegally taken from tribal members and their heirs.

Under a bill introduced this session, state-owned portions of the forest would be transferred to the band by 2029. The tribe would also gain the right of first refusal to buy any tax-forfeited forest lands within the reservation boundaries that are offered for sale.

The land return is critical to the band’s future, said White Earth Tribal Chair Michael Fairbanks. And he wants people to understand that the move can’t be separated from what happened more than a century ago on the same land — actions he referred to as a land grab.

“You know, at one time, all the land in the forest was our land. The land grab acts tore it all apart,” he said.

a man poses for a photo
White Earth Tribal Chair Michael Fairbanks says the return of tribal land is part of an important healing process for tribal members.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The land acts were a series of congressional actions in the late 1800s and early 1900s that broke up the reservation into parcels, called allotments, that were given to Native individuals.

That was confusing for a people who for generations used the land for hunting, gathering and ceremonies, said Mike Swan, retired White Earth Natural Resources director.

“We’ve never had the concept of owning land at all,” he explained. “That was brought onto us by the U.S. government in trying to make us farmers. It was a strange concept to us. The land should be used by everybody, not just one person.”

The government’s shift to allotments and ensuing federal legislation paved the way for timber companies to get access to reservation land held by Ojibwe people.

A federal investigation in 1909 by the Board of Indian Commissioners documented more than 1200 cases of land fraud.

Buyers representing timber companies purchased land by misrepresentation and forgery “with full knowledge of the fraud they were perpetrating,” wrote lead investigator Warren Moorehead, who noted that signatures were forged, and people were coerced into signing documents they could not read. He told Congress that 90 percent of Ojibwe-held land was sold.

“They have been swindled and defrauded by every scheme possible,” wrote Moorehead.

The result is visible today on a map. The White Earth Reservation, originally more than 800,000 acres in size, is now a checkerboard of state, county, federal and private lands. The White Earth Nation owns about 10 percent of its original reservation lands. Tribal members still own some of the private lands.

Losing large areas of reservation land has led to generations of poverty and trauma, said Fairbanks, who views the bill to return state-owned forest land to the tribe as healing.

“When the state hands the land back to the tribe, it’s healing for the tribe. And the state can heal itself from the history of how it was taken from us,” he said.

But around the reservation, many local officials consider that history irrelevant.

“I question if you can honestly say that that land was stolen or not,” said Becker County commissioner Barry Nelson in a recent interview.

“I would like a lot more information. If someone truly believes that land has been stolen, and it’s owed, then show me that it hasn’t been paid for,” he said.

a man stands next to a sign
Becker County Commissioner Barry Nelson said the county is being left out of discussions about returning state forest land to the White Earth Nation.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

While acknowledging there might have been fraud in the past, Nelson believes the White Earth Land Settlement Act of 1985, which cleared the title to about 100,000 acres of private land, resolved past wrongs.

The 1985 act provided White Earth with $6.5 million for economic development — funds that were used to build a tribal casino. The act also returned 10,000 acres of land to the tribal government, a process that took 27 years to complete.

Nelson, who told MPR News he will never support returning forest land to White Earth, said it’s possible tribal and county governments could find a way to share management. But he’s not optimistic.

“In my opinion, the tribe doesn’t view the counties as a player in negotiations because we don’t hold the cards,” said Nelson.

Becker, Mahnomen and Clearwater Counties all hold land within the White Earth Reservation and all oppose the return of White Earth State Forest land to the White Earth Nation. Becker County commissioners have led the opposition, hiring a lobbyist and urging other counties to join a coalition.

a wooden sign with yellow letters
A sign marks a boundary of the White Earth State Forest.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

As a sovereign nation, White Earth has a government-to-government relationship with the federal government and the State of Minnesota. Treaties require consultation between the governments.

Becker County manages thousands of acres of tax-forfeited land in the forest. Much of it was abandoned by timber companies after they harvested the trees. Counties claimed the land when the taxes were not paid and they earn money from timber sales.

County officials say tribal control of the land could negatively impact resorts, tourism, hunting and the local logging industry if White Earth tribal government limited access.

“That’s a huge economic impact for our area,” said commissioner Erica Jepson. “If you take that out of Becker County we will have businesses closing. And not just up there (on the reservation). I think even in Detroit Lakes, where it’s off the reservation, those people spend money in our county.”

Tribal officials have repeatedly offered assurances that they will not close state forest land. They contend tribal management could strengthen the tourism and hunting economy in the area.

A meeting room filled with people
Becker County Commissioners met with White Earth Tribal Council members and staff on April 9 to discuss proposed legislation to return the White Earth State Forest land to the White Earth Nation.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

At a recent meeting in Detroit Lakes, tensions were evident between the Becker County Board of Commissioners and White Earth Tribal Council members. County officials implied they did not trust White Earth assurances that land access and economic concerns would be addressed if the forest is under tribal control. At one point a tribal council member asked if commissioners thought tribal government was incompetent.

But as more than an hour of discussion ended, tribal council member Cheryl “Annie” Jackson made an offer.

“I want to extend the invitation to you guys to come to our table, have a meal with us. Let’s sit down and, you know, discuss things,” said Jackson.

No one immediately took her up on that offer, but commissioner Barry Nelson concluded his remarks by saying that he thought the tribe’s intentions were honorable and that conversations should continue.

a woman listens intently.
White Earth Tribal Council representative Cheryl "Annie" Jackson at a recent meeting with Becker County commissioners in Detroit Lakes.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

“Even if we don’t agree, dialogue is always good. And I don’t think that probably either side is going to change completely where they’re coming from. But I think we should look at how we can get our common goals,” he said.

Nelson invited tribal officials to participate in county meetings on land management, an area that has long been a point of disagreement between the tribe and local and state officials, particularly around forest lands.

Swan said when he was director of White Earth Natural Resources he challenged county and state management decisions in the 1990s that allowed clear-cutting the forests.

He said his concerns were dismissed.

“‘You’re not a player at the table. Why should we listen to you?’” Swan recalled hearing.

Despite hints of progress at the meeting in Detroit Lakes, deep-seated distrust on both sides has made it difficult to sustain productive conversations.

Tribal and county staff collaborate in areas like social services and law enforcement. But there’s been limited dialogue between elected officials.

And tensions that have simmered for decades seem to be coming to a boil as the tribal government tries to assert its authority over land use.

a man stands next to a map
Business owner and outdoor enthusiast Craig Hall wants to eliminate the White Earth Reservation boundaries.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Craig Hall is a Becker County businessman who’s active in several sportsmen’s clubs. He says the local snowmobile club gets a permit every year for trails across tribal lands.

But he believes White Earth will shut down access if they have control of the state forest, despite assurances from tribal officials that the public land will remain open.

“If you think this is going to stop here, if they get this (forest land), I’m just telling you it’s not,” said Hall. “Because once they get a little bit, they’re just gonna keep taking and taking.”

Hall views the reservation boundaries as a barrier to commerce and he thinks they should be eliminated. He said they’re also a barrier to fair treatment of non-Native residents.

“Everything goes to race, everything goes to race, ‘You’re racist, you’re racist.’ I don't feel that that is the case at all,” said Hall.

The opposition is organizing around a nonprofit called H2 Land Stewards, formed by Mahnomen farmer Dave Vipond. He lives on the reservation and he’s being sued in tribal court for violating tribal environmental regulations.

Last year, White Earth passed an ordinance that requires farmers to apply for a tribal permit if they want to irrigate crops on reservation lands or within a zone around it. The tribe said it took the action to protect water quality and wild rice.

Since he’s not a tribal member, Vipond said he can’t vote in tribal elections despite being regulated by tribal ordinances. He doesn’t believe he can be treated fairly in tribal court.

“There aren’t very many good things about a reservation,” he said. “Because the walls are built up, you’ve got people living under two different sets of rules, people aren’t equal on a reservation. That’s the sad part of it. It’s all based on the color of your skin. Until we get to a point where we’re the same and we’re equal, we’re going to have these issues.”

a man in a blue shirt
Mahnomen farmer Dave Vipond.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Vipond insists he would welcome dialogue, but he’s not inclined to initiate it. He faults the state for not stepping into the fray.

“If the Governor and Lieutenant Governor — actually from this tribe, right? — if they wanted to sort this out, if they wanted dialogue between the two groups, wouldn’t they be the perfect people to do it?” he asked.

Fairbanks, the tribal chair, said he wants to have dialogue and be a good neighbor, but he also wants respect.

“Because you’ve got to realize that White Earth Nation, we generate about $84 million in payroll on all of our businesses and our government here and it gets spent all around us,” he said. “So, when we hear these harsh words going on about us and then they take our money, I have kind of a difficulty understanding that.”

Fairbanks said he will not back down on protecting the environment and reclaiming tribal lands. He expressed surprise at the sudden and intense opposition.

“This has been talked about for many, many years. And they had to realize that this day was coming,” he said. “Either it was last year, this year, next year, or 10 years from now, this day was coming. And today is today, it’s here.”

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