Section 1: Introduction

By 1882, most of the American Indians of the northern Great Plains resided on reservations established by the federal government. Five reservations were established partially or wholly in northern Dakota Territory. They were (and still are) Standing Rock Reservation (Lakota and Yanktonai), Fort Berthold Reservation (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara), Turtle Mountain Reservation (Chippewa), Fort Totten Reservation (Dakota; now called Spirit Lake Reservation),  Sisseton-Wahpeton Reservation (Dakota). (See Map 1)

ND Indian reservations
Map 1: There are five Indian reservations or parts of reservations in North Dakota. All of the tribes have seen their reservations reduced in size during the 19th or 20th centuries. This map shows the current shape of reservations. Buffalo Bird Woman and Wolf Chief lived on the Fort Berthold Reservation long before the Missouri River was dammed. All reservation residents were expected to take up farming, send their children to school, and live in houses made of lumber. Courtesy, North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission

Before 1860, each of these tribes had pursued ways of making a living (economies) based on the resources available to them. The sedentary tribes raised crops, hunted, and traded. The nomadic tribes hunted and traded. They worked appropriately for the season which means that they did most of their hunting in the late summer and early Fall. They raised crops in the spring and summer. Other means of making a living such as making and decorating clothing, extracting Knife River flint, or trading took place when time allowed.

When the tribes were forced to accept a reservation, they lost some of their economic activities such as hunting bison and gathering native plants. The loss of these economies was very harmful to the tribes. The move to reservations resulted in poverty, illness, and a declining tribal population.

There were, however, new resources available to tribes through trade and through their federal annuities. Metal goods were welcomed. Stoves heated their houses and cooked their food. Women found the metal kettles to be efficient in cooking.

Government buildings on Fort Berthold Indian Reservation Elbowoods ND photo by Fred Olsen
Image 1: Federal reservation agents worked in this building at Elbowoods on the Fort Berthold reservation. The homes where the agents lived with their families were nearby. One agent took care of tribal business; one was the supervising farmer. There was a carpenter who worked on agency buildings. There was also a “matron” who helped women with household and family concerns. SHSND A0860
Indian woman with corn mortar 1916
Image 2: Women used a wooden mortar and pestle to grind corn into meal. This woman probably raised the corn in her own garden. In 1916, when this photograph was made, people used trunks and burlap sacks to store food and clothes instead of traditional parfleches and cache pits. This woman probably preferred the traditional way of preparing corn. SHSND 0086-0398

The federal government assigned agents to each reservation. (See Image 1) Missionaries often established churches and schools on the reservations. Both agents and missionaries taught the Dakotas, Lakotas, Chippewas, Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras new skills that would help them adjust to life on the reservation. Sometimes these skills, such as farming or blacksmithing, helped to provide food, clothing, or housing for the tribes. Some skills generated income through sales to non-Indian visitors and tourists. Indians did the work necessary to help their families survive, but many found it difficult to learn new ways and to give up traditions that had given them everything they needed for hundreds of years. (See Image 2)