Government among traditional Indian cultures made little distinction between the religious and political world. Political decisions were made with spiritual guidance and served to fulfill both political and spiritual means. (O’Brien, 1989)
Harmony among all elements—the land, people, animal, plant life—is an important value among the Dakota Sioux. Human beings are not considered above other living things, but connected to them as a part of all life and thus are responsible for all aspects of life. Rights and privileges are never greater than one’s duties and responsibilities. Power, in traditional tribal governments, flowed from the community to the leaders. In a traditional context, an individual’s status was based on that individual’s ability and performance. In many instances, leaders existed to serve the will of the people and the village. Because tribal cultures were historically classless, government was highly decentralized and democratic. (Meyer, 1993)
Fraternal societies played a significant role in maintaining the governing structure of Dakota society. The Dakota “soldiers lodge” was a society organized in the mid-1800s for the purpose of governing the hunting expeditions of the Dakotas. It assumed a more active role at the Mdewakanton, Sisseton, and Wahpeton villages after 1862. (Anderson, 1986)
The village council was the standard forum for political discussion and decision-making. In the earliest times, Dakota elders brought the more important issues before the council. While anyone could speak in council, younger men generally listened to the advice of elders. Consensus was arrived at by allowing each council member an opportunity to speak. When a particular issue or course of action was agreed upon, the council then moved onto other issues. When a consensus was not reached, the issue was delayed until such time as an honored elder or leader could bring it up again.
While individual chiefs had no special privileges in a counsel, they generally announced decisions, opened council meetings, and focused attention to the issues. They developed influence, by showing good oratorical skills and possessing good sense. In this way, they assumed the position of “speaker,” a very important rank. Although historically the role of the speaker is unclear, they played important roles in a council. By the mid-19th century they appear to have obtained the honor through a process of election.
During the late 1850s, a number of major societies emerged. Among the most important were the Bear Dance society, the Elk Lodge, the Raw Fish Eaters Lodge, the Dog Liver Eaters Lodge, and the Sacred Dance Lodge. (Anderson, 1986, page 117) These societies organized to maintain the Dakota culture, to oppose Christianity and the loss of Dakota Sioux territory. The “soldiers lodge” grew to such prominence at the Sisseton and Wahpeton village that it controlled the chiefs.
The traditional government of the Dakota Sious was made up of a leader and his advisors. The Dakota had four “Akicitas” (warriors) who enforced the decisions. They all made up the “Tiyotipi” (Tent of tents, e.g., council tents). In the council tent, they provided a stick for each warrior in the camp. This stick was used for counting and often used in the moccasin game. (Lambert, 1996)
In social order, discipline on the hunt was a necessity. If a warrior pushed ahead of the rest on a buffalo hunt, his tipi was pulled down and his meat confiscated by the “soldiers lodge.”
In the early 1900s, much of the leadership for many tribes was first provided by government appointed agents and superintendents. During this period, the Dakotas, as a traditional group of people, found their land base diminished, their hereditary chiefs gone, and their lives controlled by an external governance system. According to the Fort Totten agency superintendent, it was difficult to get sufficient representation to elect a business council. The officers who served on the tribal council in 1938 were predominantly elders, most were over 60-years-of-age, and they carried on their discussions in the Dakota language.
Between 1887 and 1934, Indian tribes lost 190 million acres. During this period, the Dakotas lost about two-thirds of their land base. The shift in government policy brought on by the passage of the Wheeler-Howard Act of 1934, known as the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), the loss of Indian lands was halted. Congress attempted to preserve what little land the Dakotas had left. Given the opportunity to reorganize as legal entities under this legislation, many tribes drew up constitutions. Others did not. The Spirit Lake Tribe, skeptical of government motives, rejected participation in the Act. They did, however, under new leadership, draw up a constitution under which they have since operated.
During the late 1950s and into the 1990s, the authority and autonomy of the Dakota Tribal government transitioned from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the Tribe. Today, the Spirit Lake Tribe, through its business council, operates under a constitution and bylaws approved on February 14, 1946, revised May 6, 1960, and further amended on June 17, 1969, May 3,1974, April 16,1976, May 4,1981, and May of 1995. On that date, the Devils Lake Tribe, by general referendum vote, changed their name from Devils Lake Sioux Tribe to Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe. In November of 1996, the U.S. government officially ratified the tribe’s constitutional revision and the name of the Tribe was changed to Spirit Lake.
As a contemporary government, the governing body of the Spirit Lake Tribe is the tribal business council. The Tribal Council consists of six (6) members. The reservation is divided into four (4) political districts: Crow Hill District, located west of Four Winds School, the Fort Totten District, which includes the area north of the Ski Jump Road and State Highway 57 to west along the dividing line between township 152N and 153N. The St. Michael’s District includes the area east of the Ski Jump Road, and bounded on the south by the east-west line between township 152N and 151N. The Woodlake District includes all territory between the Sheyenne Road and the east-west township line. Each of these districts elects one representative. (Seivgny, 1994)
The chairperson and secretary are elected at large, while the vice-chairperson is appointed from within tribal council membership. Elections are held once every two years, in May.