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Tribal Historical Overview - Early 1900s

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Early 1900s

The United States now dealt with Indians through the War Department. Considering the Indian as a military threat, Congress established an Indian agent system in 1896. Through this system, they assigned agents to different tribes whose responsibility it was to maintain friendships among the Indians, carry out treaty obligations, and mediate issues over land. They stationed agents, referred to as “Farmers in Charge,” at small posts in different regions of the country. The agent who served at Turtle Mountain was E. W. Brenner. He was headquartered at Fort Totten.

By 1910, a Bureau of Indian Affairs office was established in Belcourt. The Turtle Mountains now had its own agent. The agent handled weekly business, one day of which was set-aside as “Indian Day.”

In 1919, Indian men, who were not citizens, enlisted in large numbers in the World War I. Citizenship was granted to all Indian people with the passage of the Snyder Act in 1924. This piece of legislation became known as the Indian Citizenship Act and granted citizenship status to all Indian people, born within the territorial limits of the United States.

Works Progress Administration (WPA) Days, 1930s

The drought and Great Depression had a devastating impact on all of America. Accustomed to continuous poverty, struggle, and hunger, the impact on Turtle Mountain Chippewa was not as severely felt. Hardworking and resourceful people, the Chippewa adopted farming and gardening. Gardening was a means of maintaining a livelihood after the decline of their traditional occupations of hunting, trapping, and trading. They raised cattle, pigs, and fowl and supported themselves with limited hunting, trapping, and fishing. Through ingenuity, work was found in a variety of areas such as selling berries, trading and bartering, chopping and selling of wood, farm work, and even collecting medicinal herbs for pharmaceutical companies. Resources were limited and the people continued to struggle economically.

It was under the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Act was passed in 1933. This program offered many economic options for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Jobs were provided for men in road construction and home improvement on the reservation. Construction jobs entailed the building of small two- and three-room houses to replace one-room cabins. Women were given jobs and training in sewing, cooking, canning, and gardening. Some felt the depression was a blessing for tribal members because it opened up job opportunities through the WPA.

Because of allotment and lack of employment opportunities, many Chippewa left the Turtle Mountain region. However, after the WPA program was off to a good start, people began to return. The Indian people in Rolette County numbered 2,400. Ten years later that number was up to 5,000. The work boosted the morale of the people and their standard of living. Most of the jobs provided were of a seasonal type, leaving a big part of the year in unemployment where hardship prevailed.

Indian Reorganization Act of 1934

Congress approved the first constitution of the Turtle Mountain Band in 1932. All of the subsequent revisions made by the tribe were approved by the Department of Interior. The Wheeler-Howard Act, known as the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934, was the attempt to undo the damage caused by the earlier allotment acts. The Act was envisioned by John Collier, who became Commissioner of Indian Affairs. This legislation allowed tribes the opportunity to draft their own constitutions and bylaws, to “reorganize” under the authority of IRA and devise their own system of governance. This legislation also provided funds to some tribes to help them in reorganizing. By a vote of the people, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa chose not to accept the Indian Reorganization Act as its form of government.

During this time, the Turtle Mountain people, through their resourcefulness, had established and maintained a comfortable community. In 1922, a large mercantile store was built. Known as “the Big Store,” this store, which was situated beside the lumber yard, served as a local gathering place. The town also supported a creamery, a grain elevator, a privately owned gas station, and a lumber yard. The people, returning to the reservation following the depression, required new opportunities. It was during this time that a hospital was built to accommodate the needs of the people.

the "Big Store" mrecantile store
Mercantile Store. The mercantile store in Belcourt served the community
until the mid-1950s. (Photo courtesy of the Turtle Mountain School District)

Turtle Mountain Pembina Band Claim

Congress established the U.S. Court of Claims in 1948. This legislation allowed the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa to file a claim against the government for unfair market value of lands ceded under the McCumber Agreement. The Chippewa pursued this claim from 1892 to 1975. For nearly a century, Chippewa people gathered, discussed, and journeyed to Washington, D.C. to gain redress. The payment of expenses and countless years of time came from the hearts of the Pembina descendants.

Relocation Act, 1952

The relocation program was established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1952. This program encouraged relocating Indians to urban areas in search of employment. The program offered vocational training, travel monies, moving expenses, one year of medical care, and assistance in finding employment. By the 1960s, 2,900 Chippewa had moved away from the reservation. People were moving to California, Illinois, Washington, and other urban areas. Many Chippewa, who moved away at one time or another, returned. This rate of relocation continued until President John Kennedy’s “War on Poverty.” Many Chippewa, who took advantage of the relocation program, continued to return as the economy of the country fluctuated and urban communities decayed. The longing for family and cultural ties also drew them home.

Proposed Termination of 1954

In 1954, Congress attempted to end the reservation system. Two men in particular, Arthur Walkings and E. Y. Berry, served on Indian Affairs committees. Congressman Walkings proposed the mainstreaming and assimilation of tribal people, thus freeing the federal government from its constitutionally-bound trust responsibility to tribal nations.

Before the passage of this bill, Congress undertook three studies. These studies swayed Congress away from federal policies supported by the government under the “Reorganization Act.” This shift in federal policy openly encouraged termination. One report, the Zimmerman Report, proposed a four-part formula which assessed and ranked the tribes in terms of their relative level of economic readiness. They determined that ten (10) tribes were ready for termination. The Turtle Mountain Band was one of the names on the list of ten tribes to be terminated.

By 1954, Congress made it known to tribes that they were holding hearings concerning their termination. The Turtle Mountain Band raised funds locally to send a delegation to Washington. Tribal Chairperson Patrick Gourneau testified that the Turtle Mountain people were unprepared economically, still living in poverty, and that such a move would be devastating. Following the testimony of the Turtle Mountain group, the subcommittee decided that the Turtle Mountain Band was not economically self-sufficient, and was dropped from the list. Perhaps because the Turtle Mountain people have always been resourceful, Congress made a preliminary determination, based upon the BIA Superintendents’ reports, to terminate the Band. They did not consider the fact that the Chippewa were still poverty stricken, occupied an extremely limited land base, and suffered from low education levels and high unemployment.

War on Poverty, 1960s

Poverty was, and still remains, a concern for the Turtle Mountain people. In 1955 Dr. David Delorme described the socioeconomic conditions at Turtle Mountain as a “rural slum.” Economic deprivation created poverty conditions requiring rectification. President Kennedy addressed many concerns involving civil rights and social reform. Even though Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, used his influence to put Kennedy’s reform into action. Several efforts under the Johnson Administration provided new opportunity for Tribes. Congress passed laws forbidding racial discrimination. The President, in 1964, declared a “War on Poverty” and the “Great Society” reform was implemented.

Belcourt mill and elevator
Mill and Elevator. The photo shows the old mill and elevator in
Belcourt. (Photo courtesy of the Turtle Mountain School District)

The Economic Opportunity Act of 1965 opened the door to “self-determination.” The Economic Opportunity Act directed financial aid into the hands of tribal governments. Prior to this, monies were filtered through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Now, for the first time, Tribal governments would handle their own budgeted monies. The limited powers of Tribal councils were increased and supported by the passage of the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968. This legislation affirmed the rights of Tribal Nations and extended some provisions of the Bill of Rights to Indian people that had been afforded to all American citizens.

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