FORT TOTTEN, N.D. — On the southern shores of Devils Lake in northeast North Dakota sits the 245,000-acre Fort Totten Reservation. The more than 2,000 Dakota people who reside there are the Mni Wakan Oyate, “the people of the Spirit Water.”
It was here that several bands of the Great Dakota Nation were sent in the mid-19th Century after white settlers took hold of their traditional homelands.
“We have to have everybody knowledgeable to have an accurate history of what happened to American Indians here in our state,” said Leander “Russ” McDonald, an elder of the Spirit Lake Nation, in an interview with the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. “For a long time, the history within the history books was lacking.”
The tribes living at Fort Totten for about 150 years are largely the Sisseton, meaning “the people of the ridged fish scales,” and the Wahpeton, meaning “the dwellers among the leaves.” When the Sisseton and Wahpeton moved to the present-day reservation, some of the Yanktonai band were already living there, and they integrated to become the Spirit Lake Nation.
In the early 1700s, before white settlement, those tribes' homelands were mostly in present-day Minnesota. According to their oral history, they believe they were always in the areas around the Minnesota River and Mille Lacs Lake.
The Sisseton and Wahpeton were part of the Great Dakota Nation, a confederation of seven bands known as the “Oceti Sakowin,” which were similar in their culture and language and established their own social and political rules. “Dakota” means “friend” in their language.
The seven bands of the Great Dakota Nation spread from Minnesota to eastern Montana and Wyoming and were divided into eastern, middle and western divisions. The western group was the Teton, speakers of the Lakota dialect; the middle division was the Yankton and Yanktonai, speakers of Nakota dialect; and the eastern division was the Mdewakanton, Wahpekute, Wahpeton and Sisseton, speakers of Dakota dialect.
The Sisseton and Wahpeton raised corn near the mouth of the Minnesota River and depended on fishing, wild-rice gathering and hunting buffalo, which usually involved driving the animal off bluffs and into the river to be killed and later used for everything from tipis to clothing to utensils. Dance, song and spirituality were and are central to their culture.
A French missionary by the name of Father Louis Hennepin was the first white man to mingle with the Dakota at their village near Mille Lacs Lake in 1679. In the early 1800s, Lt. Zebulon Pike, on a mission for the U.S. government to survey the region, recorded about 22,000 Dakota in the area.
White settlers started moving into the area after Pike signed a treaty with just two of the seven Dakota chiefs to cede 100,000 acres for $200,000. It was a significant treaty as it was the first signed between the U.S. and the Dakota, who received only about a percent of what was owed to them.
In the 1851 Treaty of Traverse Des Sioux, the U.S. government took most of the southern and western portions of Minnesota and provided a reservation of 10 miles on each side of the Minnesota River for the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands. The payment due to the tribes for the land, however, largely went to white traders in the area, who claimed the tribes owed them money. Military officers later reported most of the food promised to the Dakota as a result of the treaties never made it past St. Paul.
“The Dakota became increasingly frustrated,” according to Department of Public Instruction records. “They were starving and even more angry at the government for not sending annuities as promised. It was the general sentiment of a majority of the Dakota that the Great Father (president) had cheated them out of their birthright.”
The negative sentiment led to the Great Dakota Conflict, in which Dakota men killed hundreds of settlers in the area. U.S. General Henry Sibley later hung 38 of the men in the greatest mass execution in U.S. history. The entire conflict was a “tragedy,” said Gary Anderson, a historian and author of “Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862.”
“There were no heroes,” he said.
The conflict led to many of the Dakota being driven away or fleeing elsewhere. But the Sisseton and Wahpeton, who were mostly not involved in the uprising, settled in the northern Dakota Territory. In February 1867, the bands made a new treaty with the U.S., which set up the Lake Traverse Reservation, or the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Nation, that sits mostly in South Dakota and partially in North Dakota. “Oyate” means “people” in their language.
The nation has 14,000 members located throughout the U.S., according to its website.
But for those who didn’t want to travel to Lake Traverse, the treaty also established the Fort Totten Reservation, about 250 miles northwest.
Today, the Spirit Lake Nation has about 7,500 enrolled members, a quarter of whom live on the reservation, according to the tribal government. The nation sits just south of Sullys Hill National Game Preserve, which may soon be renamed to its Dakota name, “Sunka Wakan Ska Pa Ha,” or White Horse Hill National Game Preserve, if a bill proposed in July passes in Congress.
The reservation also has its own radio station, KABU 90.7, the Spirit Lake Casino & Resort, Sioux Manufacturing Corporation and the Cankdeska Cikana Community College.