When Dakota Territory was created, the first steps toward establishing Indian reservations had already been taken. The Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851) had assigned tribes to large tracts of land on which they could live and hunt. The treaty said that they should not make war with other tribes and should allow non-Indians to pass through their lands undisturbed.
The treaty was ineffective and warfare not only continued among the tribes, but several tribes became more hostile toward the U. S. government and settlers. Settlers, traders, and railroad surveys invaded the territories granted by the treaty.
In 1868, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs again called for a treaty council at Fort Laramie. This time, the treaty decreased the amount of land given to the tribes and called for stricter military intervention when the treaty was violated.
These treaties led to reservations for the Lakotas, Arikaras, Hidatsas, and Mandans. The reservations were carved from the public domain which meant that these lands were not open to non-Indian settlement.
The Chippewa and the Dakotas went through a slightly different reservation process. They were not part of the Treaty of 1868. Their reservations were established and then diminished by presidential executive order.
After 1887, all reservations went through allotment which changed the map again. Under allotment, individual members (depending on age) of the tribes received a parcel of land. A few years later, the unallotted lands were opened to non-Indian settlement which again changed the map of the reservations.
The process was a little different for each reservation. Congress, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (a division of the Department of the Interior), and the president all had a role in shaping the reservations. Though tribal leaders were often asked their opinion on the changes they faced, their voices carried little weight in the final decision. Non-Indian settlers’ demands for land were satisfied by decreasing the land base the tribes had been promised by treaty. In addition, traditional village life was disturbed by allotment (after 1887), which required that Indians live on the individual farms they were supposed to cultivate.
The history of the making and re-making of reservations challenges our understanding of democracy and equality. And yet, it is important to understand how reservations came to be what they are today. The competition for land between peoples of differing cultures helps us understand how valuable land, especially farm land, was in the nineteenth century. A review of these documents also demonstrates that the overpowering presence of non-Indian settlers and soldiers forced the tribes to give up lands against their will.