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Tribal Historical Overview - Impact of Federal Policy and Legislation

Intro | Migration | Contact | Treaties | Dakota Conflict |
Creation of Reservation | Federal Policy and Legislation |

Impact of Federal Policy and Legislation


In 1874, when the agency building was being built, the Indians
were dispersed in five or six settlements, mostly in wooded areas.
After a few years, they began to scatter over the reservation on
individual farms, at the wishes of Agent Forbes. Reports of the
Commissioner of Indian Affairs noted that progress in assimilating
the Indians at Fort Totten was slower than at Sisseton. Agent
McLaughlin, who took charge on July 31, 1876, encouraged the
transformation by reducing the quantity of blankets issued and
substituted clothing.

He even went so far as to issue only white blankets, which the
Dakota almost had to use exclusively as bed covering. (Meyer,
1967, p. 229)
The issuance of rations was a source of
disagreement and resentment among the Dakotas. At Sisseton,
some of the Indians objected to working for the annuities to which
they were entitled under the terms of the agreements providing for
the cession of their lands. With a continuing influx of settlers, the
agent proposed surveying the reservation, which was met with
great opposition. Immediately upon the passage of the General
Allotment Act in 1887
, Fort Totten Agent John W. Cramsie
began the process of dividing the reservation consistent with the
allotment policy of the government.

In 1883, a survey of reservation boundaries found a majority of
non-Indians homesteading on 64,000 acres of land that belonged
to the reservation. The U.S. government was not living up to its
treaty responsibility to prohibit settlers encroaching on Indian
lands. Nothing was done to remove the settlers or compensate
the Dakota until 1891. Agent McLaughlin, as a part of the General
Allotment policy, met with several adult Indian males and the
federal government to discuss allotment of the reservation. They
agreed upon the sum of $345,000 to cover the 64,000 acres and
other wrongful land uses. (Kappler, 1902, Vol. III, p. 83) When
the reservation lands were opened for sale to non-Indians in April
1904, Congress deleted the money owed the Indians and
stipulated that the settlers pay for the land at the rate of $3.25
an acre. (Kappler, p. 85)

Allotment continued and by 1904, the Dakota, rather than being forced onto lands they did not want, chose allotments in the area of their camps and near their relatives. This resulted in the creation of certain communities. The Yankton settled in the Crow Hill area. The Sisseton and Wahpeton established the communities of Wood Lake, Tokio, and St. Michael. (Schneider, 1990, p.90)

The allotment acts severely reduced Indian-owned lands. Before
allotment, Indian owned lands on the reservation consisted of
almost 300,000 acres. This was reduced to 166,400 acres after

According to Agent Cramsie, from 1883 to 1889, the Dakotas were doing all of the actual farming on the reservation. Allotment in severalty was tragic for the Dakota. Starting in 1886, drought reduced crops raised by the Dakota, and in the seventies, grasshopper plagues contributed to massive crop failures ... “On account of rigidity of soil, unfavorable seasons, inexperience, and a multiplicity of causes.” (Commissioner of Indian Affairs Annual Report, 1881, p. 35) The Dakota slipped back to almost total dependence on government assistance. In 1893, they were living largely on parched corn and wild turnips.

Early 1900s

At the turn of the 20th century, the government’s civilizing policy to force the Indians at Spirit Lake and Sisseton into citizenship was disastrous. In 1905, the superintendent of schools reported that two schools on the reservation had an enrollment of more than 330 students. (Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1905, p. 278) The several day schools opened by the government failed to convince the Dakota to continue sending their children to school. In 1927 when the Grey Nun’s government employment ended, they built a new mission boarding school, the Little Flower School at St. Michael, North Dakota.

From the outset, the issue of language proved to be a problem.
In 1887, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs required English to be
used in all Indian schools. In the first place, the Dakotas were
reluctant to send their children to these schools. One commissioner
reported that parents, with justifiable cause, refused to send their
children to the schools because they were ill-treated. The federal
government realized that there was a growing problem in educating
Indian children.

In 1928, a report was issued entitled “The Problem of Indian Administration,” better known as the Meriam Report. The findings of this report provided Congress and the Bureau of Indian Affairs with the basis for formulating policies affecting Indian education into the 1930s and 1940s.

The Dakotas, like most tribal people, believed that service in the
military was a great honor and a responsibility. Like men from
other tribes, when World War I began, a disproportionate number
volunteered in the armed forces at home and overseas. Because
of this action, Congress was left in a dilemma of how to deal with
the Indians who were not then citizens. As a result, in 1919,
Congress granted citizenship to those Indians who had
participated in the war. The war affected the reservation as it did
the general population. The economy and the social environment
suffered greatly. In 1924, with the passage of the Snyder Act,
or Indian Citizenship Act, all Indians were granted citizenship.

Indian Reorganization Act

By 1934, the Dakotas faced a crisis over the lack of land available to its members. Congress at the urging of John Collier, passed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) known as the Wheeler-Howard Act. This piece of legislation was designed to ease the land situation by halting the sale of Indian lands by providing funds to buy reservation lands. The Act also provided economic support by establishing elected governments. The Tribe did not vote to adopt this IRA provision. In 1944, the Tribe did, however, draft its first constitution and bylaws. These were not approved by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs until February 13, 1946.

Throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, economic and tribal
self-sufficiency was an issue of primary concern. Reservation lands
were so divided that it was impossible for most people to make a
living by farming or ranching. Rather than providing the assistance
necessary, the federal government promoted a policy of leasing
Indian lands to non-Indians. In 1944, Indians worked only 12,628
acres of trust land, while non-Indians leased and farmed 27,879
acres. (Fine, 1951, p. 39) In spite of the poor economic situation
on the reservation and the potential of relatively good pay, many
Dakota had established a measure of self-sufficiency. Many families
moved to the Red River Valley to work in the potato harvests.
Some men farmed and worked to build day schools. They also
worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) planting trees.
The women cultivated large gardens.


Between 1952 and 1960 Congress, believing that many tribes were well on their way to self-sufficiency, enacted legislation to terminate the federal trust relationship between the federal government and Indian tribes. This piece of legislation served to significantly worsen the already severe economic conditions on most reservations, as well as on the Spirit Lake Reservation. During this period:

The Bureau of Indian Affairs dominated efforts of
the tribes and community life revolved around the
Bureau. Poverty was evident everywhere with
employment possibilities practically nonexistent.
Housing was poor and substandard, school
dropout rates were high and children were sent
away from friends and families to boarding schools
because of isolated from public schools, poor living
conditions, and transportation problems. Health
problems were rampant and the average life span
was only 40 years of age on most reservations.
(United Tribes, 1985, p. 23)

Many families were provided with federal “relocation” assistance, and moved to cities such as Chicago and Minneapolis, to train for employment. While many people today still live in several large urban cities, most returned home.

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