Last land parcels returned to White Earth
The long awaited completion of a land transfer process under the White Earth Land Settlement Act, or WELSA, has finally been reached.
On Wednesday, July 17, the last two parcels of land were officially transferred with a 10K Acre Signing Celebration at the Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen.
The final two land parcels include Parcel B-86, which is 37.75 acres located in Becker County and Parcel M-3, which is 40 acres in Mahnomen County. Both land parcels are situated outside the boundaries of the White Earth Reservation.
“This is a historic moment, 27 years in the making,” said Mike Swan, director of White Earth Natural Resources.
A sense of unity and celebration filled the room as those who contributed to the completion of WELSA gathered to witness the signing.
Many who spoke at the event shared their pride in reaching the conclusion, and cited the day as a symbol of the future growth and development of White Earth.
WELSA was established in 1986 by Congress in response to illegal land transactions which had stripped property from the reservation.
“By 1900 we had lost 90-95 percent of our land,” said Erma Vizenor, chairwoman of the White Earth Tribal Council. “It took an act of Congress to compensate the original allottees who lost their land illegally. The land is invaluable; the land is who we are. We’re tied to the land as a people.”
A portion of the act stipulated that the State of Minnesota transfer ownership of 10,000 acres of land located within the boundaries of the White Earth Reservation to the United States, be held in trust.
Much of the lost land had been exchanged for tax payment or forfeiture, both of which contributed to a climate of fraud, since the reservation land should have been exempt from taxation.
WELSA also settled unresolved claims for unallotted lands, while clearing clouded titles.
The State of Minnesota appropriated $500,000 and the United States Department of the Interior provided $6.6 million to the White Earth Reservation for purposes of economic development.
“It’s been a long, ongoing process,” said Patricia Olby, superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Minnesota Agency. Of seeking the rightful allottees and their heirs while working toward resolution, she said, “some of these years it sat stagnant, as a result of limited resources of staff and funding on all levels.”
But Vizenor was growing impatient to see the completion of almost three decades of gradually working toward resolution. “I always want deadlines,” she laughed.
So a year and a half ago, when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Tribal DNR met to discuss WELSA, Vizenor asserted her desire on the behalf of the reservation that the last remaining acres of land be granted to the tribe.
The commissioner and other Minnesota DNR representatives agreed, and the two organizations began a partnership.
Minnesota DNR Regional Director Lori Dowling-Hanson was present at the signing on July 17. She expressed that the partnership was an indication of future commitments to work with the White Earth Tribe, and said that the DNR feels confident of the stewardship for the natural resources that the reservation will provide.
Numerous departments and organizations contributed to the completion of WELSA.
As the celebration of July 17 marks the official closure of the act, the White Earth Tribal Council and the groups involved also celebrate the united efforts that fueled the realization of this goal.
“This was truly a demonstration of partnership and teamwork, with all parties working together to achieve a common goal,” said Olby. “It was through the dedication of (White Earth Tribal staff), along with staff of the Minnesota Agency, as well as representatives of the state of Minnesota, who formed a team and with open communication worked hard to complete the task at hand.”
Acknowledging that it would have been impossible for one individual organization to reach this goal alone, she added, “I’m very pleased and excited to have been a part of the team that accomplished this.”
Representatives for Senator Al Franken and Congressman Collin Peterson also attended the celebration. Valerie Gravseth serves as a representative for Franken in the northwestern part of the state, and she shared Franken’s ongoing support of the White Earth Reservation and commitment to fulfill promises made to the tribes of Minnesota.
Sharon Josephson, district staff assistant to Peterson in the Detroit Lakes District Office, also expressed the congressman’s congratulations for the White Earth Reservation and his continued efforts in support of tribal affairs.
The Minnesota Agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs signs off on legal aspects and deeds. Of her role as superintendent, Olby said, “my signature will take it (the final WELSA documents) into trust.”
“I’m very honored to be part of this,” she added.
With the documents officially signed into trust status and the closure of WELSA, Vizenor said that the goals for the future will include increased emphasis on education, as well as the intention to expand reservation property.
“Land acquisition is a huge initiative and priority — we need land to go forward,” she said. Part of these efforts will include plans to form a Tribal Land Acquisition Department while purchasing land for home sites and further development.
As the White Earth community begins to close the chapter of their history represented by WELSA, they reflect upon the legacy of the reservation. With pride in their people and accomplishments, they now turn with enthusiasm and optimism toward the future.
For a complete description of the legal components of the White Earth Land Settlement Act, visit welsa.org.
Libby Larson | DL-Online