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Tribal Historical Overview - Change

Intro | Trade | Laws and Treaties | Early Reservation Life | Change | 1900s | Economic and Social Change | Present Day


During the late 1880s and early 1890s, a severe drought gripped the country. Bad weather and severe droughts destroyed the crops of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara/ Sahnish. Government attempts to “civilize” and “Christianize” the Indians dictated federal policy, as was the blatant focus at breaking up of Indian lands.

In 1883, Secretary of the Interior Henry M. Teller initiated the Court of Indian Offenses. His goal was to eliminate “heathenish practices” among the Indians. (Secretary of Interior Report, Nov. 1, 1883) J.D. Adkins, Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1885 to 1888, exerted great influence and pressure to promote use of the English language in schools attended by Indian children stating, “A wider and better knowledge of the English language among them is essential to their comprehension of the duties and obligations of citizenship.” (Report of September 21, 1887, in House Executive Document, No. 1, part 5, vol. II, 50th Congress, 1st Session, serial 2542, pp. 18–23)

School age children were sent to school. The course of study in addition to teaching English and writing included manual labor in preparation to live in an agrarian society. Adult Indians were to follow the laws of the Court of Indian Offenses, which punished them for having more than one wife and for participating in dances and traditional religious ceremonies.

Although many men agreed to become farmers or wage earners, difficulties were encountered in doing large-scale farming. Year after year, the crops were killed by droughts, early frost, insects, or other disasters. The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara/Sahnish were accustomed to farming only the floodplain of the Missouri River for their crops. But the government wanted them to plant and raise surplus crops away from the river bottom in the benchlands above the river.

In 1871, Indian agent Tappen reported that the men had broken 640 acres in the flood plain and grew enough corn and squash to last the winter. As a reward, the men were given wagons and horse harnesses. Later, they were to grow wheat and oats to be turned over to the agent to sell. The agent controlled the money made from the sale of these grains.

Agent Tappen’s 1873 report described the general surface of the land as not fertile, sparsely timbered and without water. The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara/Sahnish were surrounded by prairie wilderness for hundreds of miles where very little game lived, hardly a good location to start an agricultural economy. They worked diligently with the primitive implements given them and had 900 acres under cultivation. Corn, wheat, oats, barley, field peas, potatoes, turnips, and garden varieties were raised.

Agent Tappan requested proper accommodations for himself and his employees, a schoolhouse with a dwelling for the teacher, two or more storehouses, a hospital building to house patients to separate them from native doctors, and a new building for a sawmill.

Indian agent L. B. Sperry succeeded Tappan in 1874 and initiated a policy of giving annuities directly to the families instead of a chief. This policy eroded the role of the chief and the tribal system of the people.

In 1874 the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Edward P. Smith, urged the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara/Sahnish to leave Fort Berthold, with its unproductive soil, unfriendly climate, scant supply of wood, poor water, high winds, dust, drought, frost, flood, grasshoppers, and the Sioux. That year a delegation of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara went to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) to investigate the possibilities of moving to that area. Although pleased with the country, they refused, fearing it would be too warm, dreading the long journey and, most of all, losing their attachment to the place of their birth and homes of their dead. (Dunn, 1963)


In 1876, a mission, the combination of a church, school, and residence, was built near Like-A-Fishhook Village by a Congregational missionary named Charles L. Hall. These missionaries tried to get the tribes to adopt white ways. But the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara/Sahnish continued to follow their traditions and occupied their own sections of the village, practiced their own religious ceremonies and established their own governments. To encourage the spread of Christianity, the Office of Indian Affairs authorized the Indian agents to punish people who participated in traditional religious ceremonies. Those who did were jailed and had their hair cut off. In 1889, Father Craft was assigned to Elbowoods to start a Catholic Mission. A school was built to accommodate 100 children.

Like-A-Fishhook Village Like-a-Fishhook Village. (Photo by S. J. Morrow, 1872, courtesy of
the State Historical Society of North Dakota, C0248)


Mission at Elbowoods
Indian Mission at Fort
Berthold, Elbowoods, North
(Photo courtesy
of the State Historical Society
of North Dakota, B0734-1)

By 1888, Like-A-Fishhook Village was practically deserted as people were encouraged to establish communities on other parts of the reservation. Some of the people moved 20 miles up river where they established the new community of Elbowoods. A few elders refused to move and they remained at Like-A-Fishhook Village. Again the government took land from the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara/Sahnish tribes. It was declared that the “Indians are desirous of disposing of a portion thereof in order to obtain the means necessary to enable them to become wholly self-supporting by the cultivation of the soil and other pursuits of husbandry.” (From Indian Affairs, Laws and Treaties)

The agency at Elbowoods was located on the northeast side of the Missouri River, so most people moved to the southwest side of the river, away from the agent. Many people settled in small communities near the river, where they had previously wintered or hunted. They situated themselves near a steep, sloped hill with a flat top, on the west bank of the Missouri River, and on the east side of the river. The Elbowoods agency later included a boarding school, hospital, agency headquarters, and a jail.


Congress passed the General Allotment Act of 1887 about the time the tribes moved out of Like-A-Fishhook Village. This Act was to put an end to the Indians’ tribal rights to reservation land and make them individual land owners. It was also a well-orchestrated and thought-out scheme to separate the Indians from their lands. Any un-allotted Indian land was then labeled government surplus, and dealt with however the government saw fit. It was given over for homesteads of settlers.

The Executive Order of 1891 provided for the allotment of the Fort Berthold Reservation. This order restricted the sale of un-allotted lands and reserved them for future members of the tribe. The reservation was to be divided into standardized plots—heads of families received 160 acres each, women and men over the age of 18 who were not heads of families were allotted 80 acres each, and children received 40 acres each. The actual allotment of reservation land began in 1894.

The General Allotment Act, or Dawes Act, of February 8, 1887, is an example of the change in the government’s policy towards Indian leadership that encouraged government officials to deal with individuals or families, to bypass tribal leaders, and to ignore tribal governing structures. Had the Act been successful, the allotment policy would have brought an end to the reservation system.

When people moved onto individual allotments, they were each given a cookstove, yoke of work oxen, breaking plow, stirring plow, cow, wagon, ax, hoe, spade, hand rake, scythe, and a pitch fork. They were expected to build a frame or log house on their allotment. All adult males were to work to support themselves, and children between eight and eighteen were to attend school. Farming on the benchlands did not go well those early years because of the lack of rain and poor soil. The agency recommended cattle, sheep, and swine be added to supplement grain crops.

This policy and practice contradicted Indian beliefs and practices. The Indians traditionally thought of land in terms of communal use and never as individually owned. Individual ownership made it easier for white people to purchase Indian lands. Millions of acres were lost as a result of this Act. The Dawes Act granted to individual Indians selected rights and privileges, but included constricting regulations, bringing them under control and watchful eye of the government. The goal of allotment was to replace tribal culture with the white man’s culture. On December 14, 1886, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara signed away, under duress, 1,600,000 acres of Fort Berthold land and the reservation was opened to white settlement.

By 1891, through successive executive orders, epidemics, Indian agents, and allotments, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara/Sahnish were stripped of their property and disorganized as a group. Expected to assume a philosophy of individualism, they were, as individuals, pushed to lower and lower social and economic levels. (Dunn, 1963)

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