The former Carnegie Library/Enbridge office in Park Rapids, Minnesota. Courtesy photo.
A treaty between the United States government and the Ojibwe (or Anishinaabeg) signed in Washington, DC, nearly 170 years ago will be the main focus of a new museum set to open this summer in Park Rapids.
But far from being a history museum, the organizers behind Giiwedinong: The Museum and Cultural Center of the North say it will teach Minnesotans, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, about the rights guaranteed to tribal members today, starting with those established in the 1855 Treaty which applies to land that includes Park Rapids.
The museum was co-founded by Winona LaDuke, who recently stepped down as the executive director of the nonprofit Honor the Earth following a sexual harassment lawsuit against the organization.
The new museum is partly an extension of the movement against the Line 3 replacement project. Indigenous pipeline opponents, who call themselves water protectors, argued the pipeline violates their rights to hunt, fish and gather on their ancestral land — rights guaranteed in most treaties in exchange for selling the land. Many Minnesotans, however, don’t know these rights exist in the first place.
“Most people do not know about the reservations that were created in the (1855 Treaty), the history of the ‘55, or the history of the land and the people of that territory,” said LaDuke, who is a member of the White Earth Nation. “Part of our obligation to the community is to tell our story of the land, of our ancestors and of the present people who are there.”
In addition to archival materials related to the 1855 Treaty, the museum will also feature exhibits from Standing Rock and other Indigenous-led movements to protect water as well as showcase the stories of Native Minnesotans who have been arrested or fined for exercising their treaty rights.
In a jab at Enbridge, the Canadian company that built the pipeline, the museum will be housed in a former Enbridge office. Before that, it was a Carnegie library. LaDuke hopes the museum will restore the building to its former reputation as a place of enlightenment.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the U.S. government signed nearly 400 treaties with Native American tribes outlining mutual obligations between nations. These treaties established things like boundaries, rights to mineral uses, guarantees of peace, and the right to hunt, fish, and gather on ceded land. More than 10% of the treaties were with Ojibwe tribes.
Tribal attorney Frank Bibeau has donated copies of maps related to the treaties — about 100 in all, he guesses — to the museum.
“A lot of times telling this story is about showing maps,” said Bibeau, a member of the White Earth Nation. “It shows how the people were moved and how the land was taken.”
While the treaties greatly reduced the amount of land controlled by tribes, most of them do guarantee the right to continue hunting, fishing and gathering on land outside the reservations. The 1855 Treaty, which established reservations at Leech Lake and Mille Lacs, does not specify this right, but a 1999 Supreme Court decision affirmed it for the Mille Lacs band based on previous treaties.
Delivering the opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, “The historical record, purpose, and context of the negotiations all support the conclusion that the 1855 Treaty was designed to transfer Chippewa (Ojibwe) land to the United States, not terminate usufructuary rights.”
For Bibeau, this was a sign that treaty rights still have a lot of power, even if often ignored or forgotten by the nations that signed them.
During the fight against Line 3, Bibeau and other attorneys argued that under treaty rights, tribal members arrested and charged off the reservation should have their trials moved to tribal court — and many did.
He also used the 1837 Treaty, which spells out the right to gather wild rice specifically, to help the White Earth Nation write a law establishing the rights of the grain, which they call manoomin, to exist and flourish. In 2021, manoomin sued the state of Minnesota over its issuance of a permit to Enbridge authorizing the company to use 5 billion gallons of water to build the Line 3 replacement.
Though the pipeline was ultimately built, Bibeau is hopeful that treaty rights will help protect land and water from future destruction, and he hopes the museum will be a place where people can learn about them.
“With climate change and what’s happening on the planet with regard to greenhouse emissions and the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, the sources of our food, it’s going to become more important that treaty rights are used as the tool to access and protect those resources,” Bibeau said. “If we don’t protect those resources, it won’t be very long down the road that we won’t have them.”
It may seem odd that the state of Minnesota would support a museum about treaty rights it has long contested, but Giiwedinong (which means “in the north” or “homecoming” in Ojibwe) has found support in state Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, who is a Standing Rock descendant, and Rep. Alicia Kozlowski, DFL-Duluth, who is Ojibwe. They have authored bills (HF2091/SF1916) to provide funding for programming and educational outreach at the museum. Both were introduced in February.
Kunesh said she remembers growing up in Minnesota and having few options to see Native American history represented as the sole focus of a museum, aside from the small Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post in Onamia.
“We should always make sure that we are providing opportunities to learn, understand, and expand our knowledge around sometimes controversial issues,” Kunesh said. “Now we have this opportunity to really learn in an authentic way.”
Akiing, a sister organization of Honor the Earth, purchased the building from Enbridge for $225,000 and has received $61,000 in donations. The funding bills would provide $460,000 in 2024 and 2025 from the arts and cultural heritage fund.
Kevin Lindsey, CEO of the Minnesota Humanities Center, which provides grants to organizations, said Giiwedinong would be an expansion of sorts of a permanent exhibit at the state Capitol called “Why Treaties Matter.”
That project began, in part, after a survey showed that most Minnesota students didn’t even know there were still Native Americans in the state. There are other cultural museums in the state, he said, but this one would be relatively unprecedented in its potential impact.
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