It was not until December of 1882 that Congress designated a 24 by 32-mile tract in Rolette County as the Turtle Mountain reservation for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.  The government thought they were dealing with about 200 full-blooded Chippewas, but there were more than 1,000 mixed-bloods that they had not counted.  The government wanted to allot the members 160 acres as they had done for the non-Indians in the area.  However, the Chippewas were against this arrangement and preferred to hold the land in common with all tribal members.


In 1882, president Chester Arthur established the Turtle Mountain Reservation with 22 townships of land.  By March of 1884, the original 22 townships were reduced to two townships.  All of the best farmland was now open to the public domain.




Between 1858 and 1862, the railroad appeared in Red River country.  The man who was responsible for driving the first spike in the first railroad west of St. Paul was William Crooks in 1862.  The railroad followed the Red River trails, accelerated the growth of agriculture, and led many settlers to the northwest.  It is believed that the railroad colonized much of the west.  Grace Flandrau, explains:


In all that country west from the Red River, the railroad truly was the pioneer, blazing the way and furnishing the conveyance for colonizing the land.  That country never was in any true sense a “covered wagon” country, but was settled from the immigrant train drawn by the locomotive.




In the year of 1887, the General Allotment Act (commonly referred as “the Dawes Act”) was passed by Congress.  They named it for the Chairperson of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Henry L. Dawes.  The government believed the Dawes Act to be a final solution to the “Indian problem.”  “Congress was convinced that the allotment of land to tribal members would do the following: (1) destroy tribalism and reservation by individualizing Indians on allotments, (2) confer citizenship on all Indians, and (3) educate Indian youth to assure continuation of reforms…”  The Act resulted in the allotment of lands to individual tribal members.  Since there were many more members than lands available, the government allotted lands to tribal members on the Turtle Mountain Reservation, at Trenton, N.D., in Montana, and elsewhere in the Dakotas.


Throughout the late 1800’s the Turtle Mountain Chippewa endured many hardships.  The buffalo, a main source of food for the people, was now reaching extinction.  The people throughout certain seasons would experience suffering and starvation.  As early as the 1870’s, poor conditions were reported in the Turtle Mountains.


Not only had the food supply diminished, there was encroachment of white settlers.  On June 25, 1882, a group of white settlers decided to settle in the Turtle Mountains near what is the present town of St. John.  Under the leadership of Little Shell, 200 Indians rode over to the settlement and informed them they must leave their land.  The settlers did move, however, two of them were U.S. citizens who petitioned Washington to protect them from the Indians.  On August 30, 1882, a Major Conrad from Fort Totten traveled to the Turtle Mountains with more than forty soldiers.  He met with Little Shell and told him that he would kill him if he harmed any of the white settlers.  After hearing the news from Conrad, the settlers moved back onto the reservation on September 3, 1882.


In the mid 1880’s, there were severe winter storms and summer droughts.  This harsh weather caused many pioneer farms to fail in the Great Plains areas.  The influx of Métis from Canada following the second Riel Rebellion caused an overcrowding of the two townships.  These circumstances took their toll and in the winter of 1887-88, 151 members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa starved to death.




In 1889 some Turtle Mountain people were raising cattle received from the U.S. Government.  County officials tried to collect taxes on the cattle.  The Chippewas refused to pay.  When they refused, they took several head of cattle from them creating a hostile situation between the Chippewa and local officials.  The Sheriff of Dunseith, Thomas Flynn, requested assistance from Major McKay of the National Guard.  Major McKay and his 1st Battalion headed for the mountains.  Because of the quick action of Mr. Salt and E.W. Brenner, Indian agents, they stopped the troop.  They had received a telegram from Governor John Miller calling the troop back.


This situation heightened with the encroachment of white settlers.  Few choices were left for the Turtle Mountain people.  In 1888 Little Shell, Red Thunder, and Henry Poitras sent a letter to Father Genin at Bathgate, N.D.  The letter was a request for his help and advice.  They needed assistance with the illegal taking of lands, and the hunger of their people.  Father Genin was a well-known man in the northwest.  He devoted more than thirty years as missionary and priest to the Chippewa and Dakota of Minnesota and North Dakota.  In 1897 he wrote a letter in response to an article printed in the Duluth Journal.  The article dealt with the underlying causes of the problem:


I pledge to you my word as a priest who has known these people for over thirty years, that your informant is right, and there can always be found degraded white men who surround and follow the Indians even as wolves used to follow the buffalo herd in our old times, to make them their prey…The condition of these people is truly beyond all endurance.  I can and will if necessary, furnish you proof of all I say.  (Letter from Father Genin to U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1897.)


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 business weekly, one day of which was set-aside as “Indian Day.”


In 1919, Indian men, who were not citizens, enlisted in large numbers in the First World War.  Citizenship was granted to all Indian people with the passage of the Act of, June 24, 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.


Work Progress Administration Act


The drought and the Great Depression had a devastating impact on all of America.  Accustomed to continuous poverty, struggle, and hunger, the impact on Turtle Mountain 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 fishing.  Through ingenuity, work was found in a variety of area 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 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 Mountains.  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


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 lumberyard, served as a local gathering place.  The town also supported a creamery, a grain elevator, privately owned gas station and lumberyard.  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.




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 worth of time came from the hearts of the Pembina descendants.




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 1960’s 2,900 Chippewa had moved away from the reservation.  People were moving to California, Illinois, Washington State, and other urban cities.  Many Chippewa, who moved away at one time or another, returned.  This rate of relocation continued until President 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.




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 several 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.




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.


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.