Issues-Mni Wakan Oyate

Sovereignty and Economics


Similar to the issues faced by most tribal nations, the issue of sovereignty for tribal nations continues to be challenged. On the national level, issues materialize in disagreements between tribes and federal officials over the extent of services and appropriations given to the tribes resulting from treaty agreements. These services are generally funded through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The BIA has the fiduciary (holding something in trust) responsibility for overseeing tribal funds. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, as a monolithic agency, is cumbersome and must deal with more than 500 tribes nationally. As a result, this agency has difficulty carrying out some of its tasks. Tribes, on the one hand, are ambivalent about the role of the BIA. On the other hand, they fear loss of services so vital to tribal economic survival. States continue to challenge tribal sovereign rights, especially in light of an uncertain national economy.


Many tribes have entered into gaming, as a remedy for economic woes. The impact of these business ventures are, as yet, undetermined. Because many of these ventures are new, especially to North Dakota, they have not had the luxury of stabilizing. The potential impact of these ventures on the economic condition on the reservation could be extensive. However, with a country confronted with a staggering national debt, and pressures applied by both states, individual and collective tribal members, and private interests, tribes will have difficulty in maintaining what little gains they may be seeing from gaming. The net effect of these ventures, both nationally and at the state level, have seen pressure applied to tribes over issues of accountability, jurisdiction, and tribal rights.

One significant local issue of concern to the Spirit Lake Tribe continues to be the chronic high unemployment rates. Revenues generated by both of the Spirit Lake Tribe’s casino and their business ventures, Sioux Manufacturing Company and Dakota Tribal Industries, Inc., have contributed to the economic well-being of the tribal communities. However, these enterprises have depended, to a certain extent, on defense related contracts, and are somewhat affected by changes in world economics. The relaxation of international tensions and the aftermath of the GAIT and NAFTA agreements are having an effect on the labor and market supply. These changes provide challenges to the Spirit Lake economy. Sioux Manufacturing Company has been pursuing contracting opportunities in the aerospace industry. The closing and downsizing of many air bases all over the world has also impacted the tribe’s economy. Tribal industries perform on many U.S. Department of Defense contracts. A continuing trend in downsizing could seriously affect the number and availability of federal defense contracts.

Labor resources at Fort Totten are more extensive than generally acknowledged. In addition to agriculture, a co-located manufacturing environment contributes to the skill level of the Spirit Lake work force. The labor force has a broad background of mechanical farm experience supplemented by substantial manufacturing experience. The unemployment rate on the reservation, however, remains high.

Environment and Social

Environmental Concerns

A major concern for the Spirit Lake Tribe is Devils Lake itself. This lake is located in a closed basin and has no natural inlet or outlet. In addition to forecasted and present flooding concerns, as well as fluctuating lake levels, development is hindered. The Garrison Diversion Project was to help with this situation, but an immediate solution does not appear likely. One solution hinges upon three projects which would create an inlet and outlet for Devils Lake: the New Rockford Canal of the Garrison Diversion Unit, the Sykeston Canal, proposed to link the McClusky Canal and the New Rockford Canal, if completed.

The tribe’s municipal rural and industrial projects consist of a pipeline running from the Warwick Aquifer, located in the Woodlake District. The project would extend from the Aquifer a trunkline to each reservation community. However, because of the shallowness of the Warwick Aquifer the tribe will have to closely monitor the aquifer and protect against mining its water supply. A recent grant will assess the reservation’s ground waters by placing monitoring wells at various reservation sites and into the Warwick Aquifer. In this manner, the tribe will be able to maintain a close watch on its valuable water supply.

Social Concerns

One of the tribe’s main social concerns is the high rate of alcoholism, which has a profound effect on the reservation’s high unemployment rate. The Fort Totten community and the City of Devils Lake have formed a Community Partnership Project to address substance abuse and prevention issues. The A.D.M.I.T. Center is governed by a board of directors who are pursuing a substance abuse and drug treatment center for lake’s region youth. The Family Circle Tipi is a program that works directly with individuals with substance abuse problems.

pirit Lake Health Center
Figure 17. A new health center was constructed in Fort Totten to serve the needs
of the people of Spirit Lake. (Photo by Neil Howe)


Tribal Government Renaissance

The survival of the Spirit Lake People “Mni Wakan Oyate” is hinged upon its leadership. Tribal government proponents suggest that a renaissance in tribal government, patterned after ancestral Dakota government, is needed. The continued pattern of modeling tribal government after the U.S. government will yield the same situation the federal government faces today, overburdened with massive debt, and ineffective policies, and enormous bureaucratic agencies.

The strength of the Dakota lies in their identity. The Sisseton, Wahpeton, and Yankton Dakota derive their strength by maintaining their cultural traditions and practices. The skill level of their labor force continues to grow and constitutes a strong community resource. Political stability of the tribal government is evident by the tribe’s consistent reelection of incumbent tribal leaders who have exerted strong, ongoing leadership for the tribe. By ordering the tribes resources and reestablishing the spiritual philosophy of their ancestors, the Dakota will rebuild their society.

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