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Red Lake Reservation is rare because the tribal nation owns all of its land


Very few Indian tribes in the United States actually own all of their reservation land. For more than 40 years, a federal policy called allotment carved up most reservations into private parcels. Only a handful of tribes avoided this, and keeping their lands changed their futures. NPR's Anya Steinberg and Sequoia Carrillo went to the Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota for NPR's history podcast, Throughline.


DJ ST JOEL: What's up, Red Lake?

ANTON TREUER: If you take a drive through Red Lake, you will notice that, you know, they have their own justice center. They have their own police force, tribal government complex.

ANYA STEINBERG, BYLINE: They have their own radio station.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: We were big fans of WRLN. A lot of the road signs on the reservation are in Ojibwe first and English second. There's even a fishery that uses traditional Indigenous techniques. We actually got to see it and smell it in action.

He just showed me the machine to descale. It's very, very cool.

STEINBERG: (Laughter).

In some parts of the reservation...

TREUER: People bury their dead in the front yard.

STEINBERG: This is Anton Treuer, author of the book "Warrior Nation: A History Of The Red Lake Ojibwe." Anton is a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, and he grew up nearby.

TREUER: That is very different than you'll find in most parts of America.

CARRILLO: The reason Red Lake is so different from pretty much any reservation I've been to before is because of events that happened almost 150 years ago.


CARRILLO: It's June 29, 1889. Red Lake's seven hereditary chiefs are gathered in a tiny government school building to meet with a commission sent by the United States. Red Lakers still held more than 3 million acres of land while most tribes in Minnesota held less than 100,000.

STEINBERG: And the U.S. wanted that land. On Red Lake's side, there was one man at the forefront of the negotiations.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Joseph Gilfillan) He was made by nature one of the greatest men in mind and body that I think I have ever seen.

CARRILLO: His name was Medweganoonind.

STEINBERG: Medweganoonind, or He Who Is Spoken To as he was known in English, was often described by settlers as the head chief at Red Lake. When he arrived at the 1889 negotiations, he was 82 years old, and he carried with him a lifetime of loss and upheaval, a lifetime of dealing with Americans.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Medweganoonind) We wish that any land we possess should be not only for our own benefit but for our grandchildren hereafter.

CARRILLO: He's facing off against the U.S. Chippewa Commission, a group of three men.


CARRILLO: One, a missionary; two, a surgeon, and last but not least, their leader, Henry Rice.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Henry Rice) All that is desired by the government is that you will agree to what is best for yourselves.

TREUER: Henry Rice was a well-known early Minnesota politician, and he was deeply involved in the Indian business.

STEINBERG: Rice had negotiated treaties with groups of Ojibwe across Minnesota, and here he was in 1889 to get the job done once again.

TREUER: They wanted everybody living at Red Lake to cede all of their land.

STEINBERG: And if they couldn't get them to do that...

TREUER: To at least get them to take allotment.

STEINBERG: Allotment was a federal policy that divided reservation land into privately owned parcels.

CARRILLO: After parcels were allotted to tribal members, the remaining land was opened up for sale to settlers, farmers and businessmen. The policy was framed as a win-win. White Americans could get access to valuable timber and farmland, and Native people could own their own land and a piece of the American dream.

STEINBERG: But Medweganoonind wasn't buying it.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Third council at Red Lake...


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: ...Wednesday, July 3, 1889.

TREUER: Medweganoonind said, look.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Medweganoonind) I wish to lay out a reservation here where we can remain with our bands forever.

TREUER: We don't want to give up anything. And he knew that there was no way for them to avoid giving up something, but they would not give up everything.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Medweganoonind) I will never consent to the allotment plan.

CARRILLO: As the negotiations dragged on, Henry Rice began to understand that Red Lake wasn't budging.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Fourth council, Red Lake, July 4...

Fifth council at Red Lake, July 5...

Sixth council at Red Lake, July 6, 1889.

CARRILLO: They were not going to get Red Lakers to move off this land.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Henry Rice) You must not expect to keep all your reservation.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Medweganoonind) It is not greediness that influences us.

TREUER: And they actually had a map laid out on the table, and the tribal members drew lines around the lake, and they articulated in the agreement that all of the land around both upper and lower Red Lake and a mile of land around the lakeshore on all sides would be part of the reservation. So that was the understanding.

STEINBERG: The commissioners and the hereditary chiefs reached a deal. Red Lake would cede millions of acres of land, but in exchange, the reservation would not be allotted. This moment was the fork in the road. It's when Red Lake's path diverges from the vast majority of reservations in the United States.

TREUER: What happened next, we don't have great documentation for. But afterwards, Henry Rice took off...

CARRILLO: He left Red Lake with the signed agreement and the map in hand.

TREUER: ...Eventually made his way to Washington, D.C., and there was a map submitted. Either Henry Rice took the map he had in front of the natives, ripped it up and submitted a different map, or submitted the map that was agreed to and somebody else came in and swapped it out.


STEINBERG: A corner was sliced off the reservation map. Whether or not it was by accident, we'll never know.

CARRILLO: Medweganoonind and the hereditary chiefs left the negotiation thinking they had kept the most important parts of their land - upper and lower Red Lake and the forests around it. By the time they found out it had been stolen, it was too late.

STEINBERG: Since the moment Red Lake's leaders discovered the fraud, they've been adamant about getting it back.


MARTÍNEZ: That was Anya Steinberg and Sequoia Carrillo for NPR's history podcast Throughline, and you can listen to more on the topic wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anya Steinberg
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Sequoia Carrillo is an assistant editor for NPR's Education Team. Along with writing, producing, and reporting for the team, she manages the Student Podcast Challenge.