Life on the Reservations

The objective of the federal government was the same for all reservations: turn the Indian into a white, or as close to a white as possible. Or, as Captain Henry Pratt of the Friends of the Indian organization put it, “Kill the Indian and save the man.” The allotment of tribal land to individuals; the prohibitions on things Indian such as religious ceremonies, language, and long hair; the Christianizing and Americanizing thrust of mission and government schools—these had a single objective: forced assimilation. How this was carried out in North Dakota, however, varied from reservation to reservation. According to the 1910 census, 6,486 Indian people live on those reservations.

Fort Berthold

The allotment of tribal lands to individual members of The Three Tribes began in 1894. The heads of families received the traditional 160 acres. Others over the age of eighteen got 80 acres and all children received 40 acres. This meant that a mother and father who had three children could claim 360 acres, enough land for farming and small-scale ranching. But often adjacent tracts were not available so many families lived on the 160 acres; their other land, sometimes miles away, was of little use to them. About 1,000 allotments were made.

Allotment broke up more than tribal, communal land holding; it scattered people who traditionally had lived close to one another. Crow Flies High requested that his people be allowed to take their lands together; the request was denied and his followers were placed in all parts of the reservation.

Indian girls at the Grey Nuns’ school at Fort Totten.  Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota..

Fort Totten, Indian reservations, band music

Although the government had promised that unallotted land could be held in trust by the Three Tribes, special Indian agent James McLaughlin convinced them that the sale of remaining land to whites would bring in money to improve reservation conditions. In 1910 Congress approved the sale of most of the reservation land east of the Missouri River.

By this time most of the people were living on farmsteads in log houses. Most had a corral and stable and were farming and ranching. Drought often caused economic problems. Interaction with non-Indians became more extensive and the nearby towns of Plaza, Parshall, and Van Hook offered the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara a wide variety of goods and entertainment.

Agent McLaughlin was impressed with the success that many had had, in spite of drought and plant disease. Tom Smith was cultivating 400 acres with modern equipment and operated a small store. He also owned an automobile. Most, however, were not as successful as Smith.
Some maintained, as much as they could or the Office of Indian Affairs would allow, their traditional ways. Most of the members of the Three Tribes, however, began to adopt non-Indian ways. In part that was due to the long-time friendly relations between them and whites. In part it was due to the availability of schooling.

Fort Totten Indian School band.  Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

By 1895 students could find a variety of educational possibilities on the reservation. The mission school, run by the Congregational Church, was in its nineteenth year of operation. For those years the Reverend Charles L. Hall and his wife, Emma (until her death in 1881), taught Christianity, writing, reading, history, geography, and housekeeping skills. Reverend Hall ran both a day and a boarding school. Browning, an agency boarding and day school, offered both vocational and traditional courses. The provision of meals and clothing was a strong attraction of the boarding school. Day schools were also established at Armstrong and Independence to serve pupils in outer areas of the reservation. Some students attended boarding schools off the reservation—places like Carlisle Institute in Pennsylvania and Hampton Institute in Virginia.
Many of those who were educated off the reservation returned. Charles W. Hoffman, an Arikara, came back to teach and in 1908 became agency superintendent. He was the first in the nation to hold that position on his own reservation.

Fort Totten

Allotment at Fort Totten became a complicated matter. The 1883 survey discovered that non-Indians had homesteaded on 64,000 acres of reservation land. Nothing was done to remove the squatters or compensate the Native people until the process of allotment was begun. In 1891 Congress agreed to pay $80,000 for the loss of the 64,000 acres but payment was never authorized. Agent James McLaughlin and the Devils Lake Sioux Tribes (the name generally used to refer to the Yanktonai and the Sisseton/Wahpeton Dakota) agreed on $345,000 as reimbursement for the lost land. But when in 1904 Congress finally approved the opening of excess tribal lands to white settlement, it deleted the $345,000 and required the white settlers to pay for the land at $3.25 an acre. Additionally, it opened unallotted reservation land for non-Indian purchase at $4.50 an acre.

By 1905 allotment for the Indian people was completed. Acreage of almost 136,000 were allotted to 1,193 people. Unlike Fort Berthold, children born after 1900 received no land. And, the provision that original allotments would be divided equally among heirs complicated the land question. As a result, much land eventually fell into disuse.

Drought, spotty soil, and lack of a farming heritage hampered agricultural progress. Little Fish, a leader of the Cuthead band, was living on a small farm where he raised enough grain to feed a few head of cattle. He was not prosperous but was making a go of it in 1908. Most, however, were not as successful as Little Fish.

Like Fort Berthold, a religious group was the first to provide educational opportunity.  In 1874 the Grey Nuns, Sisters of Charity, arrived from Montreal, Canada, to open a mission boarding school.  They taught basic learning in reading, writing, arithmetic, and history as well as practical courses in cooking, sewing, and gardening.  Four years later the Benedictine brothers began a boarding school for older boys.

When the soldiers left Fort Totten, the Fort Totten Indian Industrial School opened at the abandoned facility in 1891 under the administration of the government’s Office of Indian Affairs. The Grey Nuns stayed on as government employees to teach preparatory courses much as they had done before. Industrial training emphasized agriculture and livestock production for the boys and housekeeping for the girls. Later, the course of study included such practical learning as carpentry, masonry, plumbing, and plastering.

Although the Grey Nuns attracted 50 to 60 into their prep department, the Devils Lake Sioux people did not for some time encourage their children to attend the Industrial School. By 1910, however, 473 students, beyond the capacity of the school, had enrolled. Of those, about half were Chippewa from Turtle Mountain and Montana. One government day school, Waanatan, operated on the reservation.

Many reservation residents continued in traditional ways in spite of government prohibitions. Dakota dances, old and new, were held and most of the Sisseton and Wahpeton spoke only the Dakota language—to the point that Devils Lake merchants were forced to learn some Dakota if they wanted reservation business. Traditional dress, however, was generally reserved for powwows.

Interaction with the white community gradually increased—especially after 1900. Devils Lake Sioux participated annually at the Chautauqua where one day was set aside for Indian dance demonstrations. A baseball game between Devils Lake High School and the Fort Totten Industrial School also took place. The Indian school usually won.

Turtle Mountain

A severe land problem confronted the Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Métis. In 1884 their reservation had been arbitrarily reduced from twenty-two townships to only two or 40,080 acres. It was physically impossible for all allotment applicants to settle there.

Confusion and discord emerged. Some full-blood Chippewa felt that the Métis, half-blood Chippewa, should be excluded from the reservation. Government officials wanted to eliminate any families that might be arguably classified as Canadians. Some who maintained their traditional trapping and trading wanted nothing to do with the reservation and the change to farming that it stood for. Chief Little Shell and his Chippewa and Métis followers wanted land in Montana so they could live in their traditional ways. Some tribal members favored homesteading on public land, but were reluctant to because of unsettled taxation status.

Congress eventually created a commission to straighten out who should qualify for land at Turtle Mountain. In what seemed to be arbitrary decisions, the commission made its determinations — determinations that pleased very few.

Little Shell requested that 446,670 acres of public land be added to the reservation. He got nowhere. Finally in 1892 an agreement was made with the government: 1) the Turtle Mountain Chippewa would receive one million dollars for the nine million acres of land that they ceded to the government; 2) the reservation would be surveyed for allotments; 3) anyone who would not get land on the reservation would be allowed to homestead on vacant public lands.

Congress did not approve the agreement until 1904—twelve years later! In the meantime many Chippewa who had homesteaded lost their land because they thought that they had legal right to the land without filing for a title.

In the end, the reservation could not accommodate all the allotments. Some families took public land at Devils Lake, Trenton, and in Montana. Tribal members on reservations in Montana received their allotments there. Little Shell refused to sign the agreement and he and his followers settled on public land off the reservation around Dunseith. The thorny land question was finally settled, but the Chippewa and Métis had been scattered.

More than the people at either Fort Berthold or Fort Totten, the Chippewa resisted white ways of education and farming. Roman Catholic priests began a day school in 1884 and a Sisters of Mercy School opened in 1888. The students who chose to enroll, however, were Métis, not Chippewa. Children were also sent to schools off the reservation: some to the Fort Totten Industrial School; some to Catholic boarding schools in Milwaukee and Chicago. By 1891 the reservation educational needs were serviced by a Catholic boarding school and three government and one Episcopal day schools. Most of the students were Métis.

The Turtle Mountain Chippewa continued to teach their children as they had been taught — by the elders who knew the traditions and stories of their people. The Chippewa, too, would rather hunt, trade, and trap than farm. Some farmed, but not many. The Chippewa resisted in other ways. In 1909 not one could be recruited for the Indian police. In 1914 anthropologist Alanson Skinner visited the reservation and reported that the Chippewa continued the celebration of the Sun Dance and other religious ceremonies. Federal policy, of course, had outlawed such activities, but the Chippewa paid no attention to the prohibition.

Standing Rock

The Standing Rock Reservation came into being when in 1890 Congress broke up the Great Sioux Reservation into six smaller reservations. The larger part of the reservation is in South Dakota. In North Dakota, Sioux County is reservation, and Fort Yates is the principal town.

Although in 1879, 122 Indian families, both Yanktonai and Lakota, had taken 80-acre farming tracts under terms of the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868), the allotment process was extremely slow. Appropriations for a reservation land survey did not come until 1893. Actual parceling of the land to individuals did not occur until 1906. At Standing Rock children were allowed allotments.

In 1910 unallotted land was opened for homesteading. In 1913 Congress offered any remaining land for sale at $5.00 an acre. Over a million acres, considerably more than the Indians owned, went into white hands.

Chippewa at Turtle Mountain continue traditional powwow.  Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

As on the other reservations, religious groups took on the early responsibility for education. The Roman Catholics began a mission school in 1876. An industrial farm school opened in 1878. Forty-five boys attended a boarding school that emphasized English instruction and arithmetic. A girls’ boarding school offered English and home skills to 32 students. The Congregational Church and the Indian agency also ran day schools. Acceptance of white man’s schools did not diminish the traditional role of the tribal elders as teachers. That role continued well into the 20th century. And the opening of the reservation did not much influence tribal society.

The Lakota were by nature hunters not farmers. The adjustment to farming was painful and not very successful. In 1914 complaints about reservation conditions reached the Secretary of Indian Affairs in Washington. In his role as Indian inspector, James McLaughlin traveled to Standing Rock to investigate the conditions first-hand.

He found that most of the people were growing some crops and raising some cattle. But three years of drought had made food supplies too short to make it through the winter. He discovered that white cattlemen had let 10,000 head graze on the reservation, destroying crops and pastures. McLaughlin concluded that government rations would see the people through the winter, although no one on the reservation was doing very well.

By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Grade Level


Subject Matter

Social Studies, Science

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change

Related Links

For further reading, see the following article in the Centennial Anthology of North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains, available on line in PDF version at
“‘Long Rides Across the Plains’: Fort Berthold Students at Hampton Institute (Spring 1994) by Mary Lou Hultgren and Paulette Fairbanks Molin, pp. 232-249.
FOR FURTHER READING: See article and photographs in North Dakota History, 61.2, Spring 1994, pp. 37-41,
“Thomas Smith: A Personal Perspective,” by James R. Young