Marvin Manypenny wasn’t afraid of a fight. The American Indian activist beat drums and carried protest signs, organized petitions, interrupted hearings and spent time in jail for contempt to make his point. He did battle not only with the federal government but also tribal authorities on his native White Earth reservation, becoming a self-taught expert on treaties, sovereignty and the U.S. Constitution.
Manypenny “was unafraid to speak up and speak truth to power,” said his daughter, Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan. “The thing he instilled in me … is we need to know and assert our rights.”
Manypenny died at his home on Jan. 26 in White Earth, Minn., after a long illness. He was 72.
He grew up on the reservation, the second child in a large family. Lifelong friend and activist Ray Bellcourt said Manypenny was a smart, happy-go-lucky kid who enjoyed outdoor activities like ice skating and swimming.
Manypenny, who attended the University of Minnesota, had a natural leadership ability, strong writing skills and a fantastic memory, said John Morrin, a friend and activist.
“He was an articulate person. And he cared. He had a heart for the issue and for the people,” Morrin said.
Manypenny was living in Minneapolis in the early 1980s when Native activists began organizing around the White Earth land claims issue in hopes of regaining thousands of acres that they said were stolen over many decades by the federal government. The land had been placed in trust, but the government breached its responsibility by allowing tax forfeitures and other improper means of taking the land away from tribal members, Morrin said.
Manypenny moved back to the reservation and helped start the group Anishinaabe Akeeng, which means “the People’s Land.” The group tried to recover some of the lost property in federal court.
“We wanted a fair resolution to this terrible history that had taken place,” Morrin said. “It was an uphill battle.”
The lawsuits weren’t successful. But while Manypenny fought for land, leaders on his reservation were trying to amend the Minnesota Chippewa tribe’s constitution to give the tribal council total power, Bellcourt said. Manypenny and others defeated the amendment and became a recurring “thorn in the sides” of tribal officials, he said.
“If they stepped out of line, they got an ear-beating from one of us,” Bellcourt said.
Manypenny’s activism was all-consuming and involved frequent travel. “We never, ever stopped,” Bellcourt said. “It was never about money — we never asked for a penny.”
But Manypenny found time to run the Anishinaabe Cultural Center in Detroit Lakes and Callaway, Minn., for nearly a decade. The youth program, which started in 2000, focused on visual art, dancing and drumming, providing young people access to ceremony and their culture, Flanagan said. “He was ahead of the curve,” she said, adding that such programs are more common now.
Flanagan said her father’s “whole life was an adventure.” He went from studying to become an Episcopal priest in the 1980s to later embracing traditional spirituality. He shined most when speaking at meetings or protesting at rallies, she said, but he could also be gentle and funny.
Flanagan recalls him saying: “My girl, I want to burn down the system and you want to change the system from the inside out.” And he expected her to continue the fight.
“The last thing I said to my dad was, ‘I love you so much. I promise to do everything I can to fight for our people,’ ” Flanagan said.
Besides his daughter, Manypenny is survived by his wife, Karen, along with other children and grandchildren. Services have been held.