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The stories that came before us are part of who we are today. Our history is part of our health. This section highlights some of the events and experiences that have influenced the way we think about health and healthcare today. For more information, resource links to tribal websites are included at the end of each section.

The MHA Nation is here today because of some important decisions that the tribes made over 100 years ago. In 1837, smallpox came to the Mandan. This was not the first time. There was no cure for the disease and no way to keep it from spreading. Only 125 Mandan people survived.

Smallpox spread to nearby tribes, and they lost many people, too. After each epidemic, the tribes were left weaker. Many of their leaders were gone. The Sahnish (Arikara) and Hidatsa lost almost half of their people. By themselves, none of the tribes had enough people to defend themselves from their enemies. That is when the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara joined together. Together they could protect themselves. Together they became valued trading partners. Other tribes became more interested in trading with the MHA tribes than fighting with them.

The Fort Berthold Reservation was established in 1870, and allotment of land began in 1894. Indians did not think of land as something that was owned by individuals. Allotment broke up the land that the tribes shared. Indian families were expected to farm to support themselves. Crop failures and other hardships led to signing away 1,600,000 acres of Fort Berthold land. The reservation was opened to sale of land to outsiders.

In the 1940s and 50s, the U.S. government started five big water construction projects along the Missouri River. The work destroyed over 550 square miles of tribal land in North and South Dakota. Over 900 Native families lost their homes.

The Three Affiliated Tribes were hit very hard. The flooding of the Garrison Dam destroyed animal habitats, food and way of life of many MHA families. Families were paid to move to other locations. For most families, the pay they received was not enough to start over. A government commission investigated. It found that the people of the Fort Berthold and Standing Rock reservations had paid an unfair share of the cost of the water projects. Government programs brought funding for social and economic damages. The loss of ancestral land and livelihood left scars on the health of families and communities. These effects are still felt today.

Although they are part of one nation today, each MHA tribe has kept its separate ceremonies, clans and cultures.

For more information, visit the MHA Nation website. www.mhanation.com and https://www.ndstudies.gov/threeaffiliated-tribal-overview

Great Sioux Reservation

Great Sioux Reservation. (Map by Cassie Theurer, adapted from Lazarus, page ix)

The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation began as part of the Great Sioux Reservation. In 1868, the Great Sioux Reservation included part of southwest North Dakota and the whole west half of South Dakota, including the Black Hills. Beyond the reservation, the 1868 Treaty gave the Sioux hunting rights that covered parts of Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and Colorado.

Within ten years, the Treaty had been broken by the U.S. government. The building of railroads and discovery of gold in the Black Hills meant that Indian land was more valuable than anyone had imagined. The U.S. Government tightened its control on the Great Sioux Reservation and took steps to change the American Indian way of life.

First, the Sioux were not allowed to hunt beyond the reservation boundaries. The U.S. Army made the Sioux give up their guns and horses. Land was divided into allotments, and Indian families were pushed into farming. Much of the reservation land was not good farm land. Most Indian people did not want to farm – or know how. With the loss of hunting grounds and traditional foods, people had to depend on government food rations and clothing. Christian missions came to the reservation. Native ceremonies were forbidden. Off-reservation schools removed children from their families. At school, the children were taught English – and farming. They were not allowed to speak their Native language or wear traditional clothes. All of these actions were meant to destroy traditional Indian life.

When North and South Dakota became states, the U.S. government decided that the Great Sioux Reservation was too large. Smaller reservations would be easier to control. Besides, the government wanted to open some of the reservation land to non-Indian settlers. The Great Sioux Reservation was split into six smaller areas. Nine million acres of reservation land were lost in the break-up. The Standing Rock Reservation was created as part of the split.

By 1890, the people of Standing Rock had endured many attacks on their traditional way of life. That year a severe drought hit the Dakotas, and crops failed. People were already in poor health. Now they were starving. Government food rations were cut, and many children and adults were without food. There were more deaths than births at Standing Rock that year.

For more than 100 years the Sioux have fought with the United States over the Black Hills. It is the longest active legal battle in U.S. history. In a 1980 Supreme Court ruling, the Sioux won a financial reward. It is the largest amount that any Indian tribe has ever been offered. But the offer has been turned down. To the Sioux, the only acceptable deal to date remains the return of the Black Hills.


The Spirit Lake Nation

The Mni Wakan Oyate at Spirit Lake have roots among the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of the great Dakota Nation. Metis and members of the Cut Head band of the Yankton Dakota were also among the early settlers at Spirit Lake.

The Sissetons and Wahpetons moved to Spirit Lake from their lands in the Minnesota Valley after the Great Dakota Conflict of 1862. The Dakota Conflict happened because the food, money and supplies that had been promised to the Indian people by the U.S. government did not show up. The winter had been especially harsh, and there had been crop failures the year before. People were hungry. Conflicts between the Dakota and white settlers got worse.

The Dakota could see their land being lost to them. Land that should have been reserved for Indian people was being sold to white settlers. When a starving Dakota warrior took food from a farmer, things got out of control. The farmer and his family were killed. Dakota warriors could see no good end to the situation. They made a desperate try to recover land they had lost. They attacked settlers and trading posts. Before the conflict ended, 450 warriors and settlers had died. Thirty-eight Dakota warriors were hanged. This is still the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Few Dakota stayed in Minnesota after this. Some settled in Canada, some were moved to reservations, and others moved west to hunt the remaining buffalo. The Sisseton and Wahpeton Dakota, most of whom were not involved in the conflict, were among the wandering bands that moved to the northern part of the Dakota Territory.

The Devils Lake Sioux Reservation was established in 1867. At the time Fort Totten was built, there were no Indians living close by. A hard winter in 1870 brought over 500 Dakota people to the reservation. As the buffalo disappeared and the harsh weather cycle continued, the population grew. People of the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands were among the first to settle on the reservation.

Smallpox began to spread at Spirit Lake in June 1884. The disease spread to the reservation from the communities of Walhalla and Pembina. The Dakota who caught smallpox, or “black death,” moved to a camp outside Fort Totten so they wouldn’t spread the disease. (p.108)

The Dakota learned to farm, and through the end of the 1880’s they were able to sustain themselves. Then another cycle of crop failures made it tough to survive without government help. In addition, the allotment system that was supposed to give farming land to Indian families was corrupt. The land base that should have been reserved for Indian people was again being sold to non-Indian settlers. Indian-owned land on the reservation was cut by almost half under the allotment system. Indians were not compensated for the land that was being sold out from under them.

When Fort Totten was abandoned in 1890, the buildings were used as a boarding school. At one time there were 473 students enrolled at the Fort Totten Industrial School. The school trained many students in trades such as carpentry, gardening, dairying and farming. Women were given instruction in cooking, sewing and nursing. Like other boarding schools, Fort Totten was seen as a way to “assimilate” Indian children. The school closed in 1935.

The Spanish Flu hit Spirit Lake during 1918-19. No official records are available to show how many Dakota people died in the epidemic, but there were many casualties. There was no hospital in Fort Totten until 1932. The first hospital had 31 beds.

The Dakota called their holy men waken wicasas.. Some holy men were also medicine men or pejuta wicasas. Siptoduta was the last of the hereditary chiefs. He died in October of 1921 at the age of eighty-seven. He was considered to be a wakan wicasa, and healed people who were afflicted with evil spirts. (p.152)

Between 1950 and 1960, the U.S. government gave Indian families help in moving to cities for employment training. Some families did move to places like Minneapolis and Chicago. Many returned to Spirit Lake.

The 1970s was a time when the general population of the U.S. became more aware of the severe conditions on American Indian reservations. The American Indian Movement created some of this awareness. The Indian Education Act of 1972 helped provide funding for culturally-related education needs of Native American children. It helped make possible Little Hoop Community College, now Cankdeska Cikana Community College.

For more information, visit the Spirit Lake Nation website.


The Chippewa of Turtle Mountain have ancestors who were part of the great Ojibway migration to the Great Lakes. Part of the Ojibway settled on the north shore (Canada) side of Lake Superior. Some settled to the south (Minnesota). The Ojibway that settled to the south became known as Chippewa.

The Ojibway had always been hunters and trappers. The fur they trapped was valuable for trade. Because they had goods that were valuable to Europeans, the Ojibway were some of the first tribes to trade for European steel knives, copper kettles, guns and other goods.

The Red River area and the lakes of northern Minnesota were great fur territories. At the height of the fur trade, Pembina was its center. When the fur ran out, one group of the Pembina band of Ojibway moved to the Turtle Mountains. Here they found plentiful resources – beaver, fish, deer, buffalo and many types of medicinal and edible plants. White settlers had not yet reached the Red River territory. But trouble with the Dakota over control of the territory was a problem.

The Chippewa were expert traders. They traded with friendly tribes to the west and with the English and French. Many Chippewa intermarried. The number of Metis (mixed blood) families grew. By 1863, the Chippewa covered about one-third of today’s North Dakota, including the Red River Valley. Over time, a series of treaties reduced Chippewa land to a much smaller area. When the international boundary between the United States and Canada was set in 1865, Chippewa trade routes were interrupted. Louis Reil, Jr., a Metis who fought against the land boundaries and violation of rights, led a rebellion in Canada that ended with his death. Many Canadian Metis had family at Turtle Mountain. After Reil’s death, many of his followers fled to Turtle Mountain.

The Chippewa were able to continue hunting and trapping on lands they occupied in northern and eastern North Dakota. Their lifestyle kept them on the move throughout the seasonal cycles. While they were gone from their lands, white settlers moved in. The U.S. government offered several land “agreements” to the Chippewa, but the tribe refused to deal.

Once the U.S. government tried to move the Turtle Mountain Chippewa to the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. Some people did move, but the Indians fought back in court. This time the Indians’ rights to land in Dakota were upheld. In spite of this, the Chippewa land base continued to shrink. More and more land was sold to white settlers at prices that were unfair to the Indians.

As fur and game became scarce in the eastern part of Dakota, some Chippewa trappers and hunters moved west near the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. The railroad town of Trenton was established in this area, and several Turtle Mountain families settled there. When land was being allocated to tribal members at Turtle Mountain, it was found that there was not enough land for every band member to receive an allotment there. As a solution, the government allocated about 6,500 acres in western ND to tribal members who were living in the Trenton area. 1975 the Trenton Indian Service Area became an official extension of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

Chippewa Land Cessions in North DakotaIt took almost 100 years for the U.S. government to compensate the Chippewa for land that had been stolen from them or sold at unfair prices. The settlement that was reached in 1982 covered 8 million acres of land. The settlement was divided among five Pembina Indian bands, including the Turtle Mountain Bank of Chippewa.

Midewiwin, or the Great Medicine Society, was an organization of Ojibway medicine healers. The Midewiwin respected the cycle of seasons. They practiced gratitude. They honored the “Four Orders of Creation:” physical, plant, animal, and human. Midewiwin values included sharing, honor, and learning throughout life.

The totems symbolizing the health society were the otter and the turtle. Healers could be from the same family, but being a member of a healing family did not mean that a person would become a healer.

Medicine men and women choose young people for apprenticeship. The apprenticeship would last for years. The apprentice did not have healing powers until the mentor passed into the next life.

For more information, visit the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa’s website and https://www.ndstudies.gov/turtle-mountain