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White Earth Land Recovery Project

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Lake in the White Earth Reservation of Ojibwe

Lake in the White Earth Reservation of Ojibwe near Highway 200. Photograph by Jimmy Emerson, June 22, 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Activist Winona LaDuke founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP) in 1989 in response to environmental destruction and a land-tenure crisis in the White Earth Reservation of Ojibwe. Since then, WELRP has taken steps to recover stolen land, to aid and educate Ojibwe communities, to maintain traditional culture, and to restore sustainable ways of life.

In 1986, the federal White Earth Reservation Land Settlement Act (WELSA) cleared the clouded titles to 100,000 acres of privately owned land on the White Earth Reservation. Although it ended legal disputes by providing compensation, land, and funds for economic development, the act also prevented White Earth citizens from investigating land theft by non-Native people since the nineteenth century. Deforestation, meanwhile, endangered the ecosystems of the woodlands themselves.

These environmental and land-ownership crises inspired White Earth enrollee Winona LaDuke to found the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP) in 1989. To accomplish its primary task—returning land to the tribal government—the new non-profit organization began the work of raising funds to buy back parcels of White Earth land from willing sellers. It expanded its mission in 1993 by launching a Sustainable Communities initiative, designed to incorporate traditional Anishinaabeg lifeways into modern/Euro-American culture. The initiative promoted sustainable farming, clean energy, and cultural revitalization.

WELRP’s work intensified as the 1990s progressed. When mercury contaminated lakes at White Earth, preventing tribal members from fishing, WELRP cooperated with the Indigenous Environmental Network and Clean Water Action Project to raise awareness of the connection between power plants and mercury poisoning. The Wadiswaan Project, begun in 1995, focused on Ojibwe-language education in tribal schools and organized immersion retreats for youth. And by 1999, WELRP had bought back over 1,300 acres of reservation land. Most of it was sugarbush forest that supported the traditional Ojibwe practice of maple-sugar harvesting.

Also during the 1990s, WELRP reseeded reservation land with traditionally and organically grown crops, including manoomin (wild rice), beans, squash, tobacco, and heritage corn varieties. It worked to ensure a fair price for farmers and gatherers selling these goods at market. In 1994, WELRP launched the company Native Harvest to help Indigenous entrepreneurs sell their products, including wild rice, buffalo sausage, and maple syrup.

With the help of PlainState Energy Associates and a grant from the Minnesota Department of Environmental Quality, WELRP analyzed the potential for wind energy at White Earth in the early 2000s. It installed a Jacobs twenty-kilowatt wind turbine on a tribal member’s farm near Waubun in 2002. By 2014, there were three wind turbines on White Earth: one in Naytahwaush; a second that had replaced the 2002 installation; and a third near the Reservation Tribal Council Building in the town of White Earth.

In 2002, WELRP learned that researchers at the University of Minnesota had mapped a portion of the wild rice genome. The researchers had no plans for genetic engineering, but environmentalists, including Ojibwe people, worried that genetic mutations threatened the state’s wild rice beds. In another effort to conserve a sacred crop, the White Earth Nation banned the cultivation of genetically modified wild rice within its borders. WELRP, meanwhile, extended its reach across Minnesota by promoting a legislative bill (S.F. 1566/H.F 1382) to prohibit the growth of genetically engineered wild rice throughout the state. A revised version of the bill became law in 2007.

In October of 2007, WELRP applied for a community broadcast license with plans to open one of the first Native American radio stations in the US. Local community members welcomed the chance to hear Native voices on the radio, and Niijii Radio KKWE 89.9FM aired its first show on November 11, 2011. Broadcasting to the people of White Earth from Calloway, Minnesota, the station evolved to provide independent news, music, Ojibwe-language programming, and a streaming service for online listeners.

LaDuke stepped down from her role as executive director of WELRP in 2014. She was succeeded by Bob Shimek and then by Margaret Rousu, who officially took over as executive director in 2020. LaDuke continued to serve as the executive director of Honor the Earth, a national outgrowth of WELRP dedicated to Native environmental issues.

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“Alternative Energy.” White Earth Land Recovery Project, August 20, 2007.

Axelson, Gustave. “Native Harvest: Ojibwe Wild Rice Gathering in Minnesota.” Midwest Living, August 14, 2012.

Erdrich, Louise, and Michael Dorris. “Who Owns the Land?” New York Times magazine, September 4, 1988.

Hoover, Elizabeth M. “White Earth Land Recovery Project, Minnesota.” From Garden Warriors to Good Seeds, January 1, 2015.

LaDuke, Winona. All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1999.

Native Harvest. About Us.

“Niijii Broadcasting Corp. Hopes to Launch.” Anishinaabeg Today, August 13, 2008.

Niijii Radio. About Us.

Quam, Paula. “Wind Energy Blows Into White Earth.” Red Lake Nation News, January 13, 2014.

Robertson, Tom. “White Earth Members Seek Ban On Genetically Modified Wild Rice.” Minnesota Public Radio, March 8, 2005.

Rosen, Marjorie. “Friend of the Earth.” TIME 42, no. 2 (November 28, 1994): 165.

Tlumak, Jennifer. “Native Communities Must Take a Stand to Protect Wild Rice.” Anishinaabeg Today, May 4, 2005.

“Traditional Agriculture Restoration.” White Earth Land Recovery Project, August 8, 2007.

Treuer, Anton. Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2012. [See especially the entries on clouded title, 92–94.]

Walker, Rachel Kurkee, and Jill Doerfler. “Wild Rice: The Minnesota Legislature, a Distinctive Crop, GMOs, and Ojibwe Perspectives.” University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy, 2009.

WELRP: White Earth Land Recovery Project.

White Earth Land Settlement Act.

Wilcox, Lauren. “Going with the Grain.” Smithsonian, September 1, 2007.

Related Images

Lake in the White Earth Reservation of Ojibwe
Lake in the White Earth Reservation of Ojibwe
White Earth Land Recovery Project logo
White Earth Land Recovery Project logo
Harvesting wild rice in the White Earth Reservation of Ojibwe
Harvesting wild rice in the White Earth Reservation of Ojibwe
Winona LaDuke
Winona LaDuke
Niijii Radio logo
Niijii Radio logo
Cover of Food Is Medicine
Cover of Food Is Medicine
Location of the White Earth Reservation within Minnesota
Location of the White Earth Reservation within Minnesota
White Earth Nation flag
White Earth Nation flag
Maple candy sold through Native Harvest
Maple candy sold through Native Harvest

Turning Point

WELRP erects its first wind turbine in 2002, realizing a goal of its clean energy project and taking a step toward sustainable energy independence.



Federal investigators begin to review claims by White Earth Ojibwe citizens that non-Native people stole or otherwise illegally transferred their land over multiple decades.


The White Earth Reservation Land Settlement Act (WELSA) clears so-called “clouded” titles to 100,000 acres of privately owned land on the White Earth reservation, ending the investigations into illegal transfers.


Winona LaDuke founds the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP) to address the land-tenure crisis triggered by WELSA.


WELRP establishes a Sustainable Communities Initiative to address four areas of concern: energy, culture, forestry, and agriculture.


The lumber company Potlatch uses a road through WELRP land to reach a clear-cutting work site. In response, WELRP staff blockade the road, which is also their driveway.


The Wadiswaan Project is established to revitalize Anishinaabemowin (the Ojibwe language) in tribal schools.


To date, WELRP has purchased over 1,300 acres of land, to be held in a conservation trust.


WELRP erects its first wind generator, a Jacobs 20-kilowatt wind turbine, on a tribal member’s farm near Waubun, Minnesota.


WELRP promotes a bill (S.F. 1566) banning the genetic modification of wild rice in the state of Minnesota. It does not pass.


WELRP applies for a community broadcast license, hoping to create its own independent Native American radio station.


Niijii Radio, owned by WELRP, goes on the air for the first time.


Margaret Rousu becomes the general manager of Niijii Broadcasting.


Winona LaDuke steps down as the executive director of WELRP to focus on a second project, Honor the Earth. She is replaced by Bob Shimek.


The White Earth Nation owns 10 percent of its reservation’s land.


Rousu becomes WELRP’s official executive director after two years in an interim role.