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Tribal Historical Overview - Creation of the Devils Lake Sioux Reservation

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Creation of Reservation | Federal Policy and Legislation |

Creation of the Devils Lake Sioux Reservation

After the Dakota Conflict of 1862, a few Dakotas remained in Minnesota. Most were driven or fled onto the plains of the Dakota Territory while others fled to Canada. The Mdewakanton and Wahpekute bands had been removed to the Santee and Crow Creek Reservations on the Missouri River. The Sisseton and Wahpeton bands, who had been mostly innocent of participating in the uprising, settled in northern Dakota.

In February 1867, delegates went to Washington to make a new treaty. The treaty provided for the establishment of Lake Traverse, or Sisseton, Reservation in eastern Dakota, and another reservation south of Devils Lake for those wandering groups of Sissetons and Wahpetons who refused to come to Lake Traverse. The Cut Head band of Yanktonai Sioux was also included in the Treaty. (Pfaller, 1978, p. 6) When Fort Totten was built in 1867, there were no Indians in the immediate vicinity. The fort was established by General A. H. Terry, and named in honor of Brevet Major General Joseph Gilbert Totten, the late chief engineer of the U.S. Army. (DeNoyer, 1901, p.183)

Fort Totten Agency
Fort Totten Agency. Photograph of the Fort Totten Agency, Dakota Territory.
(Photo courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota)

The “acting head chief” of the Sissetons at Devils Lake was Tiowaste, or Good Lodge (called Little Fish). Although provided for in the Treaty of 1867, it was not until 1870 that William H. Forbes was appointed the first agent for the Reservation. It was believed that the Dakotas were induced to move to the fort because of the harshness of the winter and the degree of starvation amongst them.

During the 1870s, the number of Dakotas at Fort Totten grew from the few who gathered around the region, to more than 500. These Dakotas, because of their numbers, brought financial support and an agent to the military fort. The Dakotas, through the urging of the Agent John W. Cramsie, were seeing a measure of self-sufficiency during this period. They were cultivating their own farms and living in their own houses. The Fort, during these years, took up much of the reservation’s land, an issue of contention with the Dakotas. They saw their game depleting and the reservation lands assumed by the military fort. The gradual loss of bison, followed by a series of severe winters and droughts, an increased supply of annuities, caused the Dakotas dependence on the reservation system and the military fort.

The growth of the region became a reality with the creation of Creelsburg, a squatter’s town, which later became the community of Devils Lake. The military fort, in the late 1890–1891, considered an unnecessary expense, was closed by the government. Fort Totten was then turned over to the Superintendent of the Indian School at Fort Totten.

The Boarding School Era

Between 1878 and 1930, boarding schools for Indian students took roots. Several boarding schools in places like Carlisle, Pennsylvania and Hampton Institute, Hampton, Virginia were seen as a way to transform Indian people. Between the 1880s and the early 1900s, the government built a series of boarding schools on the newly established Spirit Lake Reservation. The boarding schools at Fort Totten had an unmeasurable impact on the culture of the Dakotas on the Reservation.

At the urging of Major Forbes, four Sisters of the Community of Gray Nuns of Montreal arrived on October 17, 1874, to begin teaching. They occupied and taught school in a small building erected for them by the Sioux people. This school became known as St. Michael’s Manual Labor School, and provided education from 1874 to 1890. Fifty children were taken to the school the first year, reluctantly, and twenty-five remained the whole year. (DeNoyer, 1901, p. 293) In 1890, the government abolished contracting with various bureaus such as the Catholic Bureau or the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, so the Gray Nuns began direct employment as teachers.

Gray Nuns Mission School
Gray Nuns Mission School. The assimilation policy of the U.S. government was
to “civilize” and “Christianize” the Indians. The Sisters of the Community of Gray
Nuns of Montreal and students are photographed in front of the mission school,
circa 1880s. (Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota)

On February 16, 1893, the main building of the Old Mission burned down. The students, then numbering 96, were crowded into a smaller building, and the school continued in that manner until 1885. In 1890, the military abandoned Fort Totten and the post buildings were turned over to the agent as an industrial school. The mission school was then consolidated with the industrial school. In 1904, the Turtle Mountain Reservation was also placed under the administration of the superintendent at Fort Totten.

Consistent with the Quaker “civilizing” policy of the government, instruction for boys at the industrial school included harness making, tailoring, shoe making, engineering, carpentry, farming, gardening, and dairying. For the girls, instruction in cooking, sewing, fancywork, and nursing was provided. Boys over twelve years of age were required to attend the industrial school proper for the purpose of learning a trade. All the children were kept until they completed their course of study. Some were allowed to return home in the summer. (DeNoyer, p. 201)

Mission School Students
Mission School Students. (Photo courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota)

In 1897, 270 students were enrolled at Fort Totten Industrial School. The curriculum focused on industrial training and the course of study included the carpentry, plastering, and plumbing trades. These were necessary for the upkeep of the school. By 1910, the school enrollment was 473 students, one-half of which were Chippewa and Métis children from North Dakota and Montana. In 1911, the enrollment was 400 students. Academic courses were reduced and more emphasis was placed on producing food and clothing because of reduced funds from the Indian Bureau. The school closed in 1917 because of deficits, and re-opened in 1919 with an enrollment of 313 students. Between 1919 and 1921, severe crop failures and hard times forced sending children attending Fort Totten schools from other reservations back to their homes. Between 1926 and the late 1930s, enrollments were large. It was not until the late 1930s and the early 1940s that Indian boarding schools across the country were closed, including the Fort Totten boarding school which closed in 1935. Relations between the agent and the Dakotas were relatively harmonious due largely to the fact that Agent Forbes did not try or interfere with the traditional customs of the people. Agent Forbes died in the summer of 1875.

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