'It's home': The saga of two Dakota Sioux reservations, born of injustice, but enduring cultural homelands
Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota and Lake Traverse Reservation, which is mostly in South Dakota but extends into North Dakota, are Dakota Sioux reservations. Their stories illustrate why reservations were created -- originally with the intent to assimilate natives into mainstream society, but persist as vital places to preserve native culture and traditions and to enable self-determination.
Note: This story is part of the project: "Indigenous Impacts: How Native American communities are responding to COVID-19." We invite you to view the entire project here .
AGENCY VILLAGE, S.D. — The eventful life of Gabriel Renville and the difficult decisions he was forced to make neatly encapsulate the sad fate of the Lake Traverse Reservation.
He was the son of mixed Dakota and European ancestry, which melded in the fur trade that once flourished around Lake Traverse, the headwaters of the Minnesota River.
Renville refused to join the bloody Minnesota Uprising in 1862, when some Dakotas attacked white settlers when treaty obligations weren’t honored and people began to starve. Instead, he helped whites escape.
Not only that, he volunteered to serve as a scout for the army after the war, helping soldiers track down Dakotas branded “hostiles” who’d fled to Dakota Territory.
The contributions of the Dakota scouts like Renville and the loyalty of Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakotas during the outbreak were instrumental in founding the Lake Traverse Reservation and Spirit Lake Reservation, with tribal headquarters in Fort Totten, N.D.
Establishment of this pair of reservations was a belated effort to reward tribes that had remained loyal to the United States during the bloody revolt, which killed several hundred and resulted in the mass hanging of 38 Dakota men, the largest mass execution in the nation’s history.
The greatly diminished size of the two reservations since their establishment a few years after the Civil War is common to many of the nation’s approximately 300 reservations, which are governed by tribes that have limited sovereignty and are home to many American Indians.
Spirit Lake Reservation hugs the ragged southern shoreline of Devils Lake in Benson County and dips into several adjacent counties. Lake Traverse is a triangular-shaped reservation that includes parts of Sargent and Richland counties in North Dakota and parts of five counties in the northeastern corner of South Dakota
Both reservations were created under a treaty in 1867 to right “great wrongs” — the Sisseton-Wahpeton bands were expelled from Minnesota with other Dakotas and became wandering, destitute refugees.
These two Dakota reservations — among five in North Dakota, nine in South Dakota and 11 in Minnesota — are examples of how treaties set aside lands for Native Americans more than a century ago as land-hungry settlers flocked to their homelands.
But the saga of the Sisseton-Wahpeton of Spirit Lake and Lake Traverse comes with a bitter twist: the bands were punished after the uprising even though they didn’t take part in the insurrection and risked their lives to help settlers, including freeing captives.
In fact, the helpful role of the Sisseton-Wahpeton during the uprising and in the years following, when reprisal hostilities spilled into Dakota Territory, was a major factor in the 1867 treaty that created the two reservations.
Renville played a major part in the creation of Lake Traverse Reservation, and the government named him chief of the Sisseton-Wahpeton.
The Lake Traverse Reservation was established for scouts and their families. In 1863 and 1864, the army carried out reprisal attacks against Dakota, Lakota and Nakota bands who were in Dakota Territory, wandering and hunting buffalo.
The Lake Traverse area had long been inhabited by the Dakotas, and was an area where fur traders established posts to trade with the Indians. Fort Sisseton, named in honor of Sisseton scouts, was established near present-day Britton, S.D., in 1864.
Spirit Lake or Minnewaukan, mistranslated by whites as Devils Lake, became the home of other Sisseton-Wahpeton groups who fled Minnesota.
Both reservations, even when established to acknowledge their loyalty and service, represent tiny fractions of land holdings granted to the Sisseton-Wahpeton and their relatives, the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute Dakota bands under a treaty signed in 1851.
The four Dakota bands ceded to the government 1.1 million acres at a price of 10 cents an acre for the land, mostly in Minnesota, but also including portions of Iowa and what became the Dakotas.
Renville was among many Dakotas who took up farming after the 1851 treaty was signed, cultivating land on Upper Sioux Agency, near Granite Falls, Minn.
Under pressure, the Dakotas had signed away a tract of choice land roughly the size of Alabama and in return were promised annual payments totaling $73,600 per year for 50 years.
By 1902, the Sisseton and Wahpeton had ceded all of the lands they were granted under the 1867 treaty, except for the Spirit Lake and Lake Traverse reservations.
Today, the Spirit Lake Reservation is 405 square miles and Lake Traverse is 1,450 square miles — but much of the land within their boundaries is owned by non-Indians.
* * *
Cynthia Lindquist bemoans the fact that little is taught about tribes’ treaty rights and their aboriginal land holdings, smidgeons of which remain as reservations.
She spent her early childhood at Spirit Lake Nation, then moved to Grand Forks, where she later earned a doctorate in educational leadership at the University of North Dakota.
Despite stubborn problems, such as high rates of poverty, unemployment and the problems they spawn, including alcohol and drug abuse, Spirit Lake is a refuge for Lindquist, a place where extended families gather and where cultural traditions are kept alive.
As an undergraduate at UND, Lindquist learned about the sordid trickery sometimes used to get Native Americans to sign treaties. She saw the manifest for a Dakota treaty that included kegs of whiskey.
“Essentially it was to get the Indians drunk to sign the treaty and take their lands,” said Lindquist, who is president of Cankdeska Cikana Community College in Fort Totten.
“The land was being stolen for homesteaders and colonizers,” she said. The government signed treaties to obtain “the land, the water, the timber, the minerals” and confined tribes on reservations.
“The true history is never taught and a lot of this stuff got buried,” she said.
She is quick to add, however, that she is half Scandinavian as well as half Dakota, with a foot in both worlds, and that she sees good and bad in both. “I was back and forth, back and forth,” Lindquist said. But ultimately she chose to live and work on the reservation.
Promises the government made in treaties with tribes were compensation for the vast tracts of land the tribes ceded to the government. Deprived of a way of life and often a land base large enough to be self-sustaining, tribal members often have to explain that treaties are solemn promises and the law of the land.
“Essentially it comes back to your word,” she said. “It means something.” Getting that point across, Lindquist added, involves teaching history lessons. “You have to educate people. You have to do that in a good way.”
Life on the reservation is mixed, Lindquist said, but for her the scales tip to the positive.
“It’s both good and bad,” she said. “In general for us living here, coming from here, it’s our home. There’s security here. We know everybody. We still have our values. We still have our home.”
Many reservation households are extended families. Lindquist lives with her 90-year-old mother in St. Michael, where she and a brother share caretaker roles.
Powwows and other celebrations and ceremonies throughout the year bring to keep traditions alive and strengthen communities. Even so, it’s a constant struggle.
During the pandemic, for example, when classes at the tribal college went online last spring, many students lacked internet access at home. So the tribe established seven wireless “hot spots,” including the college’s parking lot.
Federal support for tribal colleges is roughly half of what it is for historically black colleges and universities, Lindquist said, but has been gradually increasing.
Life is always a work in progress on the reservation. The many challenges require constant improvisation. But the reservation also has its unique rewards.
“It is a place,” Lindquist said. “I can always come here and native people always do, they always come home.”
* * *
Reservations today are refuges where American Indians can immerse themselves in their native customs, religion and work to preserve their languages.
But when they were established, reservations were seen by the government as a way to hasten Native Americans’ acculturation into mainstream society. Plains tribes such as the Dakotas and Lakotas were forced to abandon the life of the chase, wandering in pursuit of buffalo and other game, and to become farmers and ranchers.
The drive to assimilate Native Americans on reservations was catapulted in 1887 by the Dawes Act, also known as the General Allotment Act. The law divided reservation lands into 160-acre allotments for tribal members.
Ostensibly, the law was to instill individualism, and eradicate tribal communalism, through individual land ownership. But the law allowed “surplus” lands to be sold to non-Indians, severely undermining the native land base, a setback that persists to this day — and would prove consequential decades later to the fate of Lake Traverse Reservation.
As a consequence, land ownership at Spirit Lake, Lake Traverse and other reservations is a checkerboard of land owned by tribal members, land held in trust for the tribe, and land owned by non-Indians, usually white farmers and ranchers.
A more progressive era in American Indian policy came in 1934, with passage of the Indian Reorganization Act, sometimes called the “Indian New Deal,” which established tribal governance on reservations.
But a retrenchment came not long after in what was called the termination era, a return of federal policy aimed at assimilation through relocating reservation residents to urban areas and terminating tribes so members would live “as Americans.”
The termination era, which began in 1953, ended in 1969, a period of Native American activism inspired by the civil rights struggle. If sustained, it would have ended tribal sovereignty and federal trusteeship of reservation lands.
In the decades since termination, policy has aimed to restore tribal governments and increase Native American self-determination.
Tribes are self-governed and make their own laws, but their authority is circumscribed by federal law. Major crimes are prosecuted by federal agents and tried in federal courts, and non-Indians often do not fall under the jurisdiction of tribal courts.
As a result, the fight for tribal sovereignty continues.
Despite the progressive policy changes beginning in the 1930s, the Lake Traverse Reservation was hollowed out by the Dawes Act of 1887. Starting in 1889, merchants, railroad interests and settlers pushed to have reservation lands opened.
That led to an agreement with the Sisseton-Wahpeton, whose leaders said they would be open to selling 880,000 acres of surplus lands if the government would first pay a “loyal scout claim.” The government agreed, promising to pay $2.2 million.
Congress ratified the agreement in 1891 — action the U.S. Supreme Court decided decades later, in 1975, meant that Lake Traverse Reservation had been dissolved in the eyes of the law. It’s still on many maps, however, is regarded as a reservation and functions much like other reservations.
Gabriel Renville, who had worked to obtain reservation lands, was proclaimed chief for life by the Sisseton-Wahpeton in 1884. He died a few years later, in 1892, having outlived the legal life of the reservation he was instrumental in creating.