Govern-Turtle Mountain


Traditional Chippewa Government

The Chippewa social system was structured to meet the basic need for tribal maintenance, growth, and longevity. This philosophy of the Ojibway Nation focused on man’s five basic needs as described by Basil Johnston (1990):

From man’s five basic individual and social needs and endeavors, leadership, protection, sustenance, learning, and physical well-being, emerged the framework and fabric of Ojibway society.

*Tribe Chippewa
*Band Turtle Mountain Band
*Clan Totem

*Chippewa and Cree are examples of Tribes (Nations). Red Lake Band, White Earth Band, and Turtle Mountain Pembina Band are examples of Bands. The Bear, Fish, and Deer represent clans.

The Clan System was the framework and fabric of Chippewa society. The totem identified a function for clan members based upon man’s five basic individual and social needs and endeavors—leadership, protection, sustenance, physical well-being, and learning. Tribal members, who were born under the same totem, considered themselves brothers and sisters and this connected them into an alliance for the well-being of all members. Totems were descended through the male line. (Warren, 1985) In this way, chieftainship sometimes passed on from father to son, when the son revealed the ability to prove himself in a manner that the majority agreed upon.

And whereas . . . it has been the custom, practice, and tradition among the [Chippewa] for the chief of the tribe to select his . . . councilmen from the members of the tribe. A councilman served only during the period in which he could act in harmony with the chief and the majority of the council, and when he could not do so he resigned. Such councils answered the same end and purpose as does the Cabinet and Congress of the United States. Those customs and traditions have always been respected by the United States Government in all its dealings with the Indians wherever located. And in accordance with said customs and traditions, Ays Sence or Little Shell, senior, appointed his council. (Senate Document 444, October 24, 1892)

These honorable positions were aspiring through the oral history that they passed from generation to generation. The purpose of the history was to provide an understanding of the origin of culture and values.


Contemporary Chippewa Tribal Government

Indian agents, placed at Turtle Mountain by the U.S. government between 1892 and 1932, played a dominant role in the selection of Turtle Mountain tribal governments. This process ignored the tribe’s traditional forms of hereditary leadership. While some tribal members continued to recognize Thomas Little Shell as the hereditary chief, he never assumed those duties.

In 1932, the Turtle Mountain Chippewa adopted a constitution and bylaws and elected a tribal council. The Turtle Mountain people rejected the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) in a special election of the people. They chose to keep their own constitution. The people called it self government. The Secretary of the Interior approved the revised constitution and bylaws of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa on June 16, 1959. They approved new amendments to the tribal constitution in 1962 and 1975.

Today, a council of nine elected tribal officials governs the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. They hold an election every two years, and all enrolled members age eighteen and over who meet the residency requirements, are eligible voters. Two representatives from each of the four districts and a tribal chair are elected at large. The general election coincides with state and national elections in November.

Turtle Mountain Logo
Figure 10. Turtle Mountain flag. (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa)


The general responsibilities of the Tribal Council are to represent, negotiate, and legislate for an estimated 14,500 enrolled members of the Turtle Mountain Band who live on the reservation. The Tribal Council focuses on the interests of the tribe through ordinances and resolutions, and by overseeing the management of enterprises, lands, and funds held in common by the Tribe. As a sovereign tribal nation, the Turtle Mountain Band has established its own court system and tribal laws. As the executive arm of the Tribal government, they have oversight of tribal development projects to ensure stable economic and political developments for the future of the people.

Until recently, the tribal council was under one branch of government. In the May election of 1992, the members of the Turtle Mountain Band voted for a separation of powers. There are now executive, judicial, and legislative branches of tribal government.


The Commerce Clause (Article I, section 2, clause 3) and the Treaty Clause (Article II, section 2 clause 2) of the U.S. Constitution granted authority to the U.S. government to enter into treaties with Indian tribes. As a result, the Supreme Court has upheld that Indian tribes have an inherent right to govern themselves. The Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution embodies the right of tribal governments to maintain separate forms of government and enforces this provision through the plenary powers of Congress. (Monette, 1995) These rights include the power to decide the form of government, the power to define conditions for membership in the nation, the power to administer justice and enforce laws, the power to tax, the power to govern the domestic relations of its members, and the power to regulate property use.

The first treaties Indians made were with European countries, mainly the British. The first treaty made with the United States was with the Delawares in 1778. Since that time, 370 treaties were entered into between American Indian tribes and the United States. The Supreme Court has expressly held that an Indian treaty is not a grant of rights to Indians, but a grant of rights from them. (Pevar, 1995, p. 37) It is through the treaties and agreements between the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewas and the federal government that the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa has retained its sovereign status.

The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa has sovereign authority within the boundaries of the reservation, on trust land adjacent to the reservation, and on allotted trust land off of the reservation. The Snyder Act of 1924, also known as the Indian Citizenship Act, recognized all American Indians, whom they did not recognize previously, as U.S. citizens. The dual citizenship status of native people of the United States assures that tribal people may vote in tribal, state, and national elections. (Davis, 1997, Monette, 1995, Monette, 1994)

Trust Relationship

The source of the trust relationship originates in international law, treaties, legislation, and judicial decisions. The law continues to change as laws are made and new court cases are heard. The trust relationship is constantly changing. Presently, the law states that the United States is responsible for protecting Indian lands, resources, and for providing resources such as health, education, and preserving tribal autonomy. These rights and benefits are guaranteed to tribes as a result of promises made by the federal government in return for the cession of more than 97 percent of Indian land to non-Indians. (OBrien, 1962, pp. 261-262)

Divisions of Society


The birds represented the symbol of the leadership totem. The crane, the echo-maker, was considered most eminent because of its infrequent, unique call. The loon was next to the crane. They trained and prepared youth born into these totems for leadership duties. Not all those whom they trained were chosen. By custom, the elders invited the person of their choice, and offered them the Pipe of Peace. If the selected individual accepted the pipe, it showed acceptance of the responsibility. One who was a leader did not act on his own response. The leader talked with the consulting leaders in the band. They chose a person devoted to peace and harmony to lead.


Those individuals born into the totems of moose, deer, caribou, beaver, martin, and muskrat were greatly respected for the responsibility they carried, because these totem members kept the villages supplied with food, articles for clothing, and shelter. A young hunter’s first kill was an occasion that they celebrated. (Johnston, 1990) The hunters walked for miles, sometimes days, carrying their kill great lengths, and facing many dangers along the way.


The animals with fierce dispositions made up the totems of the defenders—bear, lynx, and wolf. Having a warrior society was essential to the survival of the people. The Ojibway had a group of defenders who took over the leadership roles during times of war. After the battles were over, or the danger passed, the warriors gave up the leadership position. When the group encountered a war situation, the war chief invited warriors to participate by offering them the war pipe to smoke. A warrior could refuse, but if they smoked from the war pipe they had accepted their responsibility. The war chief blew a whistle to signal the beginning of a battle. War chiefs could come from any totem, although they were predominantly from the defender totem. (Johnston, 1979, p. 69)


The totem associated with teaching was the fish. The tribe had a commitment to train each member to be an individual. They conducted training in three stages. From the time of birth until the age of about seven years, women and elders looked after the children. After the age of seven, young boys went with the men and clan teachers to learn to hunt and fish, while the young women worked along the side of their mothers, tribal elders, and clan teachers. The third stage was the time when a young person began to seek wisdom from others around them. During this stage, the learner realized a quest for knowledge, and sought out those who had the wisdom to teach them. Knowledge did not come looking for the youth; one had to seek it. The grandmothers, grandfathers, tribal elders, and clan teachers taught the younger generation about life. The elders used stories, parables, fables, allegories (a symbolic narrative), songs, chants, and dances to teach several values and life lessons to the young. The learning process was developmentally appropriate and about the season. (Johnston, p. 70)


The totem that symbolized the healing society was the otter and the turtle. Although one could be born into this clan, there was no guarantee that she or he would possess the healing gift. Some medicine men and women were herbalists; others became herablist-philosphers. Medicine men and women could identify healing qualities in children and prefer to select a youth with these abilities for apprenticeship. This mentor relationship would last many years while the chosen person learned the many herbs and roots, prevention and principles for a life of longevity. The practices of the medicine society encompassed psychology, metaphysics, morality, ethics, and ceremony. (Johnston, pp. 71, 72) Powers associated with healing did not pass to the apprentice until the teacher moved onto the next life.

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