Restoring (Some of) Turtle Island

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.

Photo Sarah Whiting

The TRUTH Project (Towards Recognition and University-Tribal Healing) is a Native-led research movement designed to offer suggestions about how the University of Minnesota can right its relations. It includes an accounting of the local land grabs after the founding of the university in 1851.

The Morrill Act of 1862 led to lucrative university expansions across the country at the expense of the indigenous peoples who lived there. A 554-page report from the TRUTH Project tells for the first time the story of tribal-university relations from the perspective of 11 indigenous cultures in Minnesota.

“Land-Grab Universities” was published in 2020 by High Country News, and reported that 11 million acres of indigenous land, involving 160 violent land seizures, impacting about 250 indigenous communities, led to the creation of 52 universities. The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council launched an investigation to take stock of the impact in Minnesota. It found that more than 94,000 acres were taken to create the University of Minnesota system.

According to the TRUTH Project research, the U.S. government paid the Dakota two cents per acre in 1851. Circle News reported the land was then sold for 251 times that amount.

Another finding indicates that the Permanent University Fund (PUF) — which includes mineral leasing, land sales, state iron ore taxes, and royalties — was worth more than $918 million as of June 2022. As the TRUTH report indicated, “This circulation of wealth did not benefit any of the Tribal Nations.”

Bois Forte Band of Chippewa has been involved in a different land-back effort that stemmed from timber industry purchases in the 1800s, resulting from the Homestead and Allotment Acts. Cathy Chavers, Bois Forte Tribal Chairperson, says the Band was working a few years ago to buy pieces of land back from PotlatchDeltic as funding allowed. The Conservation Fund purchased the lands and offered to sell them back to the Band.

With support from the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, within a year the land-back partnership was complete — the largest land re-acquisition in the country to date, with the restoration of more than 28,000 acres of land.

This work is important, says Chavers, because “most reservations are checker-board [in geographic layout] and many parcels of land are owned by private individuals, or county, or state, or various industries. We are the keepers of the land, and our natural resources are a huge part of who we are as a people.”

Below are reflections from leaders of the TRUTH Project.

From the Perspective of Land

created by Misty Blue and Audrianna Goodwin

I am the earth. In my earliest time, a give and take held balance, created as I came into existence. Land, sky, and below the surface, united, with fire that lived in us all.

The balance began to tilt when there was a disruption to this ancient give and take.

Aadizookaanag — sacred stories, and songs — were ripped away as the earth was dug up and the first humans were displaced.

Disconnection. Extraction. Commodification. Ache. Pain. Sadness.

We wept together.
With each cry, a new sacred breath of life was sent into the universe.

Balance can be patient.
Deep breath in. Deep breath out.
Do you feel it?
The disruption of right relation is being recognized by more of today’s humans.

The circle of domination by one species is beginning to close.
A new circle is expanding. New yet ancient.

Elder knowledge.
Ecological attunement.
Intermingled ecosystems.
Healthy human-nature interactions. Sharing and cooperation.
Recognition again that there is enough for everyone.

The sacred breath of life is returning.
We paint like the wind. Sing with the birds.

Love like the water. Gidibendaagozim in akiing/ Gidinawedaamin aki
(we are part of the land/the land is a part of us)

On Reconnecting With Aki*

created by An Garagiola

To me the land is sultry, vibrant, abundant, wise, ignored, stereotyped, spoken for, and abused.

A metaphor for indigenous women. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Indigenous women are the metaphor of the land. You cannot say you respect one whilst disrespecting the other.

Despite all she is being put through, she is still here, supporting her relatives the best she can.

Pre-colonialization, this land upheld vibrant, interconnected, and carefully tended ecosystems, teeming with life and community. She bore witness to the growth of ancient forests, the dance of wildlife, and the harmonious coexistence of species. She was confidante to the ancient trees.

Then came colonialization — a dark chapter in history. Aki endured the pain of being forcefully taken, her purpose twisted and distorted. Unci Maka was no longer allowed to be a home, a mother. She was stripped and traded as currency. As time passed, whispers of her plight emerged from beneath the soil.

Her umber curves have been embracing the bones of our ancestors since the beginning of time, an uninterrupted cycle of hellos and goodbyes. Memories of ancient civilizations, customs, and traditions are the cells of this land.

We know that the roots of the trees whisper to each other through underground mycorrhizal networks. We know the value of this land is far beyond the settler gaze. This is why our Chiefs reserved the right to what is below the surface in treaty negotiations — promises that were omitted from the final draft, which our Chiefs never saw.

Aki is held as a prisoner of war, violated, tortured. Her innards are extracted in mining and other enterprises — removed from there and replaced here where humans want it to go. She is objectified rather than revered. Forced to simultaneously endure and witness genocide.

Unci Maka mourns the loss and destruction of all she once knew so intimately. But she does not mourn silently. One need only listen to the whispers from prairie to pine. She longs to share her stories, secrets, and untold histories.

It is our hope that by uncovering and sharing the truths about this land, by acknowledging pain and survival, a new circle of healing and vitalization can take place upon her curves.

The teacher in me poses these thoughts to you: Who are you in relation to this land?
In what ways do you walk softly upon her? In what ways do you walk hard upon her? In what ways do you see her abundance and resilience around you?

Sit with the land.
Ask her to accept your deepest gratitude. Ask her to share a story with you.

* Aki (Ojibwe) — earth; Unci Maka (Dakota) — Grandmother Earth

Excerpts from the TRUTH Project report

The report also says: “The University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus sits in the urbanization of what was once a lush river valley, approximately midway between two places central to Dakota cosmology: Owamniamni (colonially known as St. Anthony Falls) and Bdote, the place of Dakota creation (near the spot occupied by Fort Snelling). … Bdote, the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, was a place Dakota women traveled to, to give birth. The water, herbs and plants found near the islands here aid in birthing and healing processes, and with the help of these medicines, they brought their children into the world at their place of genesis. Unci Maka [Grandmother Earth] gave birth to them here. The sacredness of Dakota birth, life, and death was violently interrupted with the arrival of European settlers.

…. By 1858, the United States made 12 treaties with the Tribes in Mni Sóta, often through coercive and violent means, seizing more and more land with each negotiation. All of these treaties were broken by the United States. In late summer of 1862, the U.S. still had not upheld their treaty obligations, resulting in famine. Tensions between settlers and Natives flared. War broke out. More than 500 settlers and countless Dakota lives were lost.

At the war’s end, more than 300 Dakota were tried and convicted of war crimes. Abraham Lincoln ordered the hanging of 38 Dakota men in the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Governor Ramsey initiated settler citizen bounty payments of up to $200 to those with proof of the murder of a Dakota person.

On November 7, 1862, the U.S. Army forcibly marched Dakota, mostly women, children, and elderly people, 150 miles from the Cansa’yapi, or the Lower Sioux Agency in Morton, Minnesota, to the concentration camp, Ft. Snelling, located near Bdote. It was winter. They were not allowed to take any belongings, such as suitable clothing or provisions. Along the way, settlers attacked and threw rocks and boiling liquids, murdered Dakota babies, and raped Dakota women.

Bdote, the place of Dakota genesis, became a place of genocide.

The Dakota Removal Act of 1863, a law still on the books today, was signed into law by President Lincoln and enforced by Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey and Senator Henry Sibley, both founding regents of the University of Minnesota (UMN).


TRUTH Project official website

“Land-grab universities” in High Country News

“Bois Forte Band gets over 28,000 acres back” from Kare11

“1851 Treaty of Traverse Des Sioux” from the Nicollet County Historical Society blog