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Column: Lessons from the Star Lake Casino

Winona LaDuke

The recent expose' by the Detroit Lakes Tribune about the ill-fated White Earth tribal casino plan for Star Lake was enlightening as well as disturbing.

As an investigation into the land purchase and contracts to build the casino moves forward, there are more questions to be asked. In all, the White Earth Band allegedly paid over $3.2 million for property that was valued at approximately $444,900. That's seems questionable in terms of fiscal responsibility. At the same time, it seems that buying back your own land as a tribe, is very expensive and murky.

Let me be clear, I am not a fan of casinos, that's no surprise. I want a real, multi-faceted economy. Now having said that, the truth is that the federal government, aside from essentially shackling the Anishinaabe, and other native people for a good century into a structural, social, and spiritual poverty, has not offered many options for tribal nations.

Nor has it abided by treaty agreements: return of land has been a rare option; tribal governments are urged to put up casinos, or do large, extractive, and environmentally destructive projects — whether a nuclear waste dump, a mine, or a pipeline. Now, it's our turn to learn from Star Lake not to do stupid stuff.

Star Lake is within the 1855 Anishinaabe treaty territory. Our ancestors love this territory and the 10 million acres covered by that treaty. When the treaty agreement was signed, the U.S. paid about the equivalent of 14 cents an acre for the land. Now, we are "buying it back" for millions. Does anyone have a problem with that?"

Land speculation is at an all time high for sure, and if a non-Indian wants to sell land back to a tribe, they get a premium price. For instance, a Star Lake couple received about $2.4 million from the White Earth tribe for just over 200 acres of land. Good deal for them.

If we did a little math and figured out what the Anishinaabe were paid — and adjusted it to present value — it would be about $948.64 worth of real estate. How's that feel?

I've purchased some land for the White Earth Land Recovery Project, including the Callaway Elementary School. To be honest, in those negotiations, the school board seemed very reluctant to sell to a tribal member, and on countless occasions, tribal governments have had to deal with exorbitant costs. Non-Indian landowners seem to want to "fleece the Indians" one more time, as they did a hundred years ago, when the likes of Lucky Waller and Fred Sanders were experts at unconscionable contracts, thumb printed deeds for grocery bills, and X marks on timber secured by extortion.

Then there's the trust land. Star Lake is a traditional ricing lake of the Anishinaabe; it's good rice, or at least it was before it got all messed up with residences, but it's for ricing. That's why the federal government in the 1930s re-purchased some trust land on Star Lake for the Ojibwe to continue to have access to our wild rice.

Before White Earth was cut from the 1855 treaty territory, that wild rice was part of what Chief Flat Mouth negotiated to keep. Flat Mouth, an important treaty negotiator and signatory to the 1837 and 1855 treaties, said, "...the Indians wish to reserve the privilege of hunting and fishing on the lands and making sugar from the Maple; and to reserve the privilege of making sugar from the trees, and getting their living from the Lakes and Rivers, as they have done heretofore, and of remaining in this Country.... You know we cannot live, deprived of our Lakes and Rivers; ... we wish to remain upon them, to get a living; ..."

So here we are, 145 years later, and many of our lakes are sick with agricultural runoff, our vast forests cut, and 70 percent of our wild rice diminished, and our people must buy back our land for an economy.

Presently, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has identified thousands of impaired lakes, rivers and streams and is seeking to change the wild rice sulfate standard to an acceptable level of water quality degradation to support more non-Indian, large infrastructure industries that are known polluters. Too often our social and economic problems have few "good" and "affordable" solutions from which to choose.

The Star Lake proposal was doomed from the beginning; the casino economy is saturated, and the project had little to no support from the 20,000 tribal members of White Earth. What people want are real jobs, our land, a real economy and some hope, not to feel cheated by "the White Man" one more time. Nor do they want to see a tribal government squander money and resources for really poor ideas.

The lessons of Star Lake are clear, greed remains a poor motivator for good relations in societies. Governments should not make plans without tribal support; and our ancestor's words of guidance remain strong. Keep your land and water, and take care of it, for Mother Earth will feed and provide for you.