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Libby Larson, Forum News Service, Published July 18 2013

'Historic' transfer completed under White Earth Land Settlement Act

MAHNOMEN, Minn. – The long-awaited completion of a land transfer under the White Earth Land Settlement Act has finally been reached.

The last two parcels of land were officially transferred Wednesday with a signing celebration at the Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen.

The final two parcels are a 37.75-acre tract in Becker County and a 40-acre parcel in Mahnomen County. Both are 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 the White Earth Land Settlement Act, or 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 White Earth’s future growth and development.

Congress established WELSA in 1986 in response to illegal land transactions that 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 located within the boundaries of the White Earth Reservation to the United States, to 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.

Minnesota appropriated $500,000 and the U.S. Department of the Interior provided $6.6 million to the White Earth Reservation for economic development.

“It’s been a long, ongoing process,” said Patricia Olby, superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Minnesota Agency.

Vizenor was growing impatient to see the completion of almost three decades of work. “I always want deadlines,” she said, laughing.

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 be granted to the tribe.

The commissioner and other Minnesota DNR representatives agreed, and the two organizations began a partnership.

Lori Dowling, regional director for the Minnesota DNR, was at Wednesday’s signing. She said the partnership was an indication of future commitments to work with the White Earth Tribe, and that the DNR feels confident of the stewardship for the natural resources that the reservation will provide.

With the documents officially signed into trust status and the closure of WELSA, Vizenor said goals for the future 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.

For a description of the legal components of the White Earth Land Settlement Act, visit welsa.org.