Native American tribe takes a stand to protect its natural resources

By Keith Schneider
MAHNOMEN, Minn. – It’s been centuries since the White Earth tribe migrated west across North America, following an ancestral prophecy to go where “food grows on water.” One of seven Ojibwe bands in Minnesota, White Earth found that prophecy fulfilled along the many shallow clear lakes that lie in the state’s northern forests, where luminous green stalks of wild rice grow in abundance.

The lakes and the magnificent bounty of wild rice still form the spiritual foundation of a culture, economy, and way of life for the tribe, which inhabits the White Earth Reservation that was created in 1867 through a treaty the United States signed with the Mississippi Band of Chippewa Indians.

“Everything that revolves around that rice revolves around all of us,” explained Michael Fairbanks, the tribe’s chairman.

That way of life is under threat, however, as industrial-sized dairies, hog facilities, and big crop farms are beginning to surround the tribe’s 829,440-acre reservation near the North Dakota border. The agricultural operations bring ruinous nutrient pollution that has been documented in all of Minnesota’s farming counties, and massive groundwater withdrawals for irrigation and livestock.

“When you look at the magnitude of these factory farms, the level of waste they produce, it’s horrible,” Fairbanks said.