Historical Inquiry/Historical Iniquity

While reading “The Relentless Business of Treaties: How Indigenous Land Became U.S. Property” by historian Martin Case (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2018), I began thinking about the homesteads of my maternal great-grandparents, the Blixes and the Johnsons. On both sides, they settled on rocky, inhospitable tracts in Nora Township, south of Bagley, Minnesota.

The western edge of Nora Township lay only a few miles from the White Earth Reservation eastern boundary. On the Blix side, Albert and Anna arrived in 1901. Did they have interactions with residents of White Earth? Having themselves come from far-northern Norway, and being of probable Sami extraction, did they feel a kinship with the indigenous people of the area?

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Undated post card sent to Arthur Blix by his future wife, Nora Township neighbor Mathilda Johnson.

Much of the White Earth land was sold to timber companies, land development companies, and individuals who had the money to invest. The injustice of the treaty system rankles and questions remain. My ancestors lived on land transformed from hunting and fishing grounds, formerly inhabited by people for whom land as “private property” was unthinkable. The future of the Ojibway people of White would be challenging.

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From Clearwater County Atlas, 1912, showing 160 acres solely owned by by Anna Blix.

Not that life was easy for the homesteaders. After the Blix family settled in Nora Township, husband and father Albert was committed to the Minnesota Hospital for the Insane in St. Peter, where he died in 1915. Meanwhile, Anna Blix raised sons Arthur, James, and Erven (spelling varies), managed a farm, and served as postmistress and secretary to the school board.

My mother remembers Anna, her grandmother, as small and stern. She raised her sons strictly, punishing Arthur for chasing a rabbit on Sunday. She was a Christian of the stoic variety, interesting, since organized religion came late to northern Norway, where they followed their own spiritual traditions well after the rest of Europe succumbed to the missionaries.

Great-uncle Erven died early in World War I, a radio operator who went down with the ship. My grandfather Arthur died at the Crookston tuberculosis sanatorium at age 49. Great-uncle James never married, remained in the small homestead house built by his parents, and was found lying dead on the kitchen floor in his mid-sixties.

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Undated photo of Albert Martin Blix, who died at the Minnesota Hospital for the Insane in 1915.

Political institutions, religious hierarchies, financial institutions, and corporate entities tend to obscure their real goals behind a mask of caring for the needs of those they supposedly serve. As “The Relentless Business of Treaties” make clear, there is nothing new under the sun, nor in the penumbra of disguised motives.

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