The White Earth Tragedy: Ethnicity and Dispossession at a Minnesota Anishinaabe Reservation, 1889-1920

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U of Nebraska Press, May 1, 1999 - History - 333 pages
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This compelling interdisciplinary history of an Anishinaabe community at the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota offers a subtle and sophisticated look at changing social, economic, and political relations among the Anishinaabeg and reveals how cultural forces outside of the reservation profoundly affected their lives.

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Reviewed by Barbara Tsatsoulis-Bonnekessen BARBARA@UKANVAX.BITNET
Adj. Assist. Professor, Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology,
Washburn University, Topeka, Kansas.
Submitted: Wed, 24 Aug 1994 19:10
:19 -0500 (CDT)
The literature dealing with the Dawes Act, subsequent legislations, and their catastrophic consequences for the inhabitants of Indian Country is well served with this newest addition. The author's recounting of this part of the history of the Anishinaabe effectively lifts the reservation members out of the state of perpetual victimization in which indigenous people often find themselves described, and sketches a convincing picture of a people responding to the pressures of a changing world, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so.
The book is divided into four chapters, each starting with a brief preview of its contents and ending with a summary, a strategy serving those who might just wish to browse the volume. The first chapter, "Anishinaabe Migrations and the Genesis of White Earth Communities" conducts a survey of pre- and on-reservation population movements, settlement patterns, ethnographic descriptions, and policies enacted by inside as well as outside (i.e., US government) agencies. Both of the later protagonists are introduced objectively, the metis, originating from marriages between fur traders and native women, and the Anishinaabeg, developing a sense of community by settling on White Earth. Their origins and early cooperation are traced with only a hint of the later conflict expressed in the groups' settlement patterns and professions. The detail seems confusing at times, for example, the names of individual actors in Anishinaabe history should be presented in a genealogical figure where the reader might refresh her memory as to who is related to whom, where they are located, and at what time they were sociopolitically active. Without such a visual summary, this reader was tempted to draw genealogies alongside, just to keep track of individuals. While the book is an excellent example of presenting indigenous actors as individuals, the lack of such a summary detracts from this advantage(footnote 1). Other than that, this chapter is a concise history of the Anishinaabe 19th century history and could well stand on its own.
The second chapter, "Signatures and Thumbprints: Community and Ethnicity at White Earth", draws a point-by-point comparison between the metis and the conservative Anishinaabe. Surprisingly, because there seem to be no interceding individuals, all metis are described as cash-crop farmers and merchant-traders, residing in the agriculturally suitable western part of White Earth, using wage employment, public schools, English-language Catholic churches, and anglicized surnames. They show a strong out-reservation orientation and even stronger adherence to market values, such as the individual accumulation of wealth. The conservative Anishinaabeg are described in terms of opposites; subsistence horticulturists or gatherers/hunters, located in the eastern part of White Earth, suitable to a comfortable exploitation of the seasonal round, using only sporadic wage employment and public schools, both as the seasonal industry allowed for. This group participated in Episcopalian English- and Anishinaabe-language churches as well as in the Midewiwin or Grand Medicine Society, used Anishinaabe surnames, and showed a political orientation focused on kindred and band, where individuals were content once they had achieved a comfortable level of subsistence farming.
As Meyer points out, this reservation-wide division between metis and Anishinaabeg allowed the former to indulge in the market-economy of the US,
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Anishinaabe Migrations and the Genesis
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About the author (1999)

Melissa L. Meyer is an associate professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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