Recently tribal leaders in Minnesota learned that U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber of Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District was behind the push to stop the confirmation of New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, President Joe Biden’s choice for secretary of the interior. Stauber apparently apologized to the tribal leaders for not consulting them, but he still sent a letter last week to the president that called Haaland “a direct threat to working men and women and a rejection of responsible development of America’s natural resources.” Signed by 15 Republican members of Congress who oppose Haaland’s nomination, the letter pointedly referenced H.R. 5598, a bill Haaland co-sponsored that would remove more than 230,000 acres of the Superior National Forest from plans for development. That magic word – development – appears five times in the Stauber letter to President Joe Biden.
In practical terms, the letter will have minimal effect. Stauber and his colleagues are in the House of Representatives. The Senate votes on Cabinet choices, not the House, and the letter is unlikely to sway the Senate’s vote on Haaland, who is poised to become the first Native to lead the Department of the Interior since its creation in 1849.
But in historical terms, Stauber’s letter is worth closer examination. The Indigenous history of Minnesota is directly tied to today’s ongoing debate over jobs, potential policy changes, and the environment, and to Native leaders’ opposition to Stauber’s recent actions. Five of the seven Ojibwe bands in Minnesota have their reservations in the Eighth District: Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, Grand Portage, Leech Lake, and Mille Lacs. These Native nations have survived allotment, assimilation, and attacks on their land and sovereignty. Attacks like the Nelson Act of 1889. Named after its sponsor, famed Minnesota politician Knute Nelson, the act was intended to force all the Ojibwe in Minnesota onto the White Earth Reservation, opening up the remaining reservation lands for settlement and development.
Stretching from Cambridge in the south to International Falls in the north, the sprawling Eighth District sits directly on Native lands that were ceded in a series of treaties in the mid-19th century. Most of what became the Eighth District was ceded in the 1854 Treaty of La Pointe. Surveyors found copper along the North Shore of Lake Superior in 1848, and Michigan mining interests pushed for the region’s development. The 1837 Treaty of St. Peters, known as the “White Pine Treaty,” ceded timber-rich lands in what would become Wisconsin and Minnesota. These treaty cessions helped pave the way for Minnesota’s incorporation as a state in 1858.
More than 170 years after the discovery of copper along the North Shore, mining proponents like Stauber face off against conservationists, tourism proponents, and Ojibwe bands who warn of the devastation mining could wreak on the land and water of northern Minnesota. Melanie Benjamin, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe chief executive, recently reminded Stauber that the five tribal governments were collectively the largest employer in the Eighth District – and that most of the jobs created by the tribes were held by non-Natives. But that argument isn’t good enough, and neither are all those jobs, apparently. For Minnesota’s political leaders, the Native point of view has never been good enough.
If confirmed, Haaland will lead a department that heads the management and conservation of the majority of natural resources and federal lands like national parks, monuments, lakeshores, wildlife conservation, dams, and reservoirs, in addition to Indian Affairs and territorial and insular affairs. Haaland has served on the House Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the U.S. – as has Stauber – and she chaired the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. By couching his letter in the language of development, Stauber not only attempts to undermine Haaland’s historic and well-deserved nomination. He ignores the long Native history in what’s now Minnesota – and the very district he currently represents.
Katrina Phillips is an assistant professor of American history at Macalester College and a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe.
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