Marvin Manypenny was a hell raiser for American Indian sovereignty and treaty rights

The Anishinaabe activist Marvin Manypenny passed on last week at age 72. He's pictured here at a get-out-the-vote rally in 2018. Photo by Ellen Perrault.

In 1998, as a candidate for White Earth tribal secretary-treasurer, Marvin Manypenny wrote on the front of a campaign pamphlet: “Tribal sovereignty is vital to the preservation of the White Earth Anishinabeg Ojibway Nation.” On the back: “The rights to govern ourselves is completely and indisputably ours.” 

Manypenny didn’t win that election — though his friends and family still question the veracity of the vote counting — and he never held office. But he also never stopped following the creed written on that pamphlet, always working to get more people to care about tribal sovereignty. As one of his closest friends told MPR last week, that made Marvin Manypenny a thorn in a lot of people’s sides. But it also made him a champion for his people.

The Anishinaabe activist who raised a lot of hell passed on last week at age 72. A self-taught expert on all things treaties and sovereignty for American Indians, Manypenny’s body was buried after two days of traditional ceremony on the White Earth reservation in northwestern Minnesota.

When it came to sovereignty rights for Native people, Manypenny schooled plenty of white people — who often have the privilege of not needing to know about such a topic. He taught and reminded them that sovereignty is not something that’s ever been given to Native Americans. As the first people to what became Minnesota and the United States, they’ve always had it.

But his work was primarily about his own people, continuously calling on them to better assert and use that sovereignty — like an unexercised muscle at risk of atrophy.

For years he fought over the fate of land that had been swindled away from White Earth over many decades. Congress passed legislation in the 1980s aimed at settling those claims. Manypenny chided the deal as a sellout and co-founded a group called Anishinabe Akeeng — “the people’s land.” The group accused White Earth’s tribal chairman at the time of ignoring his people’s wishes by supporting the settlement. It wasn’t about the money, they argued, but about people being able to keep the tribal land they’d always had.

As Raymond Bellcourt noted in the MPR piece, it was this fight that brought Manypenny back to the White Earth reservation — from attending seminary in the Twin Cities. His vocation, it turns out, would come from occupying buildings; getting arrested; testifying before governments in St. Paul and Washington that had long histories of atrocities against his people; and running for office himself. 

Manypenny invited fights, too. In 1992, he was charged with not paying about $6,000 in taxes to the IRS. But it wasn’t tax evasion for evasion’s sake — Manypenny was making a point. Native Americans don’t have to pay taxes, he argued, because the U.S. Constitution doesn’t recognize them as people worthy of representation. Article I of the U.S. Constitution and the 14th Amendment each make reference to “Indians not taxed.”

The attorney who litigated — and won the case against Manypenny — was future Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. 

In addition to his advocacy, for many years Manypenny ran a cultural center for Anishinaabe youth in Detroit Lakes (and later Callaway) so they’d be inspired to become artists. 

One of his final chapters was seeing one of his children, Peggy Flanagan, become Minnesota’s Lt. Governor. Peggy, who is also my wife, often tells the story of her dad telling her, “My girl, I want to burn down the system, and you want to get into the system and change it from inside out.” 

Marvin had a swarm of family and friends with him at the end. The cry and cooing of a baby, the laughter of children, and the tip-tap of a friendly pit bull eager to make new friends were the soundtrack of his final days. We should all be so lucky to have such surroundings and chances to share love as we depart. Marvin was my father-in-law these past four months, and we should all view picking up and carrying his fights as an honor.

In these past weeks, as we visited with family and friends at White Earth, we continued to discover little ways Marvin’s legacy will live on. Peggy spoke with a person who Marvin dragged to the polls in 2018 to help garner another vote for his daughter. “I’d never voted before,” the person said. “But I’m going to vote again this year.”