The haunting, cautionary tragedy of White Earth, Minnesota

The history of White Earth in Minessota, United States, is a cautionary land reform tale for South Africa. (Photo: Glen Retief)

Lessons for South Africa’s land restitution programme are plentiful and the loss of Native American land in Minnesota is indeed a cautionary tale.

The first time I heard the name, I wondered if it were a racial joke, as in, “What do you call the most dramatic single Native American land loss of the 20th century?”

“White Earth!”

But White Earth Reservation, in northern Minnesota, is real enough, a chilly, beautiful, windswept country of lakes, long-grass prairies and pine forests. The name in fact stems from a word in the local Anishinaabe language, meaning, “where you find white clay”. On a recent visit, I saw this pale loam in shimmering, cobalt-blue lake shallows and along beaches fringed with skinny, autumn-golden larch pines.

An arts residency had brought me to the area, but once there, my curiosity as a South African got piqued when I heard about two projects, both founded by longtime activist Winona Duke: the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP), focused on restoring the reservation’s original land base; and Honor the Earth (HTE), which “develop(s)… sustainable Native communities.”

I was especially curious to learn whether these connected undertakings, driven by community businesses and supported by private philanthropy, might have something to offer our own national efforts to correct grave racial imbalances in land ownership.

Pat, a middle-aged woman with curly, greying hair and a wide, welcoming smile, works at 8th Fire Solar, a community-based solar panel factory affiliated with HTE. Like WELRP’s and HTE’s other tribal businesses — such as a screenprinting cooperative and a wild rice and jewellery store — 8th Fire Solar has a number of simultaneous objectives, which, Pat admits, can occasionally tug in competing directions: to provide jobs, reduce local energy bills, tamp down carbon emissions and raise money for land reclamation.

Having grown up on White Earth, Pat spent a decade and a half in Minneapolis, working in indigenous social services, before returning to White Earth to be closer to friends and family.

“Land restoration is both emotional and practical,” Pat told me. “Functional, because land creates opportunities for businesses. But also spiritual, because in our hearts we know the land belongs to us, and we long for it back.”

Although the point seems self-evident in the context of South African land reform, too — that land justice is not just about economic opportunity, but also about political symbolism — it is surprising how much this point is overlooked in policy debates. For example, in a recent working paper, UWC land reform expert Andries du Toit took prominent neoliberal land reformers Vink and Kirsten to task for focusing on the mechanics of land justice at the expense of its politics and ethics.

Arguably, too much has been made by environmentalists, white and Native alike, about tribal people’s respect for the land. In the end, we all exploit the earth, no matter our culture and skin colour.

Willis, another tribal member, is an energetic, casually dressed man who looks to be in his early 30s. He’s a father and husband, as well as a sports fan: during our meeting at a coffee shop in a nearby town, he confessed, somewhat abashedly, to liking the Washington Redskins, a football team widely criticised for its racist mascot.

“As an Indian, I think I’m allowed!” Willis joked. For several years now, Willis has been purchasing land for the White Earth Anishinaabe.

“Individual title?” Willis asked, incredulously, when I mentioned that one of the proposals being considered in South Africa is to award personal land deeds to families in tribal areas, as a way to give these families an asset to use to build wealth. In fact, tenure reform is one of the three pillars of South African land reform policy, the other two being restitution — compensation for specific losses — and redistribution, the attempt to make land ownership patterns fairer. “But that’s exactly how we lost White Earth!”

Willis explained: 1889-1907. White settlers were eyeing the 303,000 hectares of rich timber tracts, wild rice ponds and hunting grounds of White Earth — the largest Native American reservation east of the Rockies. 

But this wasn’t the era of Andrew Jackson anymore, who’d simply ordered tribes off land guaranteed to them by treaty, in the notorious Trail of Tears. Nor was Hendrik Verwoerd in power, who might have forcibly removed them with a stroke of his fascist pen. So a more subtle approach was needed.

First, in 1889, Congress provided 32-hectare allotments for individual tribal members. Then, in 1904, an amendment hidden away in a budget bill allowed so-called “mixed-bloods” — presumed to be more business-savvy as a result of their closeness to European culture — to sell these individual allotments. “Full-bloods” could do the same with the permission of the DC Bureau of Indian Affairs.

What followed was a metaphorical gold rush. Con artists bought drinks for Anishinaabe in snow-covered saloons, then got them to sign away their land for pittances, to buy desperately needed food and clothing. Swindlers falsely appraised land as little as a 100th of its real value.

Among the Anishinaabe that were able to hang on to their land, taxes proved a burden. Within three years, only around 25,000 or so hectares remained in Native hands. The long, unsuccessful history of lawsuits to try to regain that loss led to, among many other unsavoury racist episodes, a eugenicist named Aleś Hrdlićka being hired to “prove,” with skull and nose measurements, that almost none of the surviving Anishinaabe were legally “full-blood”: shades of the notorious apartheid “pencil test” for blackness.

Could South Africa repeat such a tribal land loss, in the 2020s? It’s a fear I hear expressed when I visit traditional areas, like the picturesque Wild Coast. Give people formal titles, the argument goes, and how on earth can you ask an impoverished family to not sell out to Southern Sun Hotels? And then there goes a centuries-old way of life.

For now, the South African government is resolving this contradiction — acknowledging both the need for formal land title in tribal areas and the dangers of loss of traditional identity under untrammelled capitalism — by promising revisions to land tenure laws that will be sensitive to the complex web of customary tribal tenure arrangements, which include communal as well as individual rights, while also complying with a constitution that prohibits gender discrimination.

As for restitution and redistribution, White Earth’s experience suggests that expecting even the most entrepreneurial tribes to overcome colonial dispossession without government aid seems unrealistic. More than a century later, all of White Earth’s casinos, factories, businesses, and buyback initiatives have only succeeded in restoring 6,000 of the lost hectares. Another 4,000 were won in a 1986 law called the White Earth Settlement Act. All of this is impressive, but also, if we are in any way to accept the historical account, wholly inadequate.

What a drive I had back home from White Earth. Along Shell Lake, giant trumpeter swans floated among the reeds; white-barked birches and aspens lined the shore. The contrast with nearby Ottertail Lake, surrounded by white families’ holiday homes, the trees mostly felled for lawns and flower beds, flag poles along the private beaches, could not have been more striking. 

Arguably, too much has been made by environmentalists, white and Native alike, about tribal people’s respect for the land. In the end, we all exploit the earth, no matter our culture and skin colour.

Still, on that mild, sunny September afternoon, standing on the edge of that wild lake, I could believe that indigenous people’s land struggles, in the Amazon jungle, on the Transkei Wild Coast, or on the big-sky prairies, might indeed be ultimately inseparable from the struggle to save the planet itself. That, in the words of the WELRP mission statement, “traditional practices of sound land stewardship” might hold an answer for our wide, wounded world. DM

Glen Retief’s The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood, won a Lambda Literary Award. He teaches creative nonfiction at Susquehanna University.


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