Not long after granting North Dakota statehood, the U.S. government took land from another nation.
The Pembina Band of Chippewa lost some 10 million acres of land through a treaty that compensated the First Nation 10 cents per acre, which is roughly $3 today. That wasn’t the last attempt at diminishing the Tribe’s land base.
This story recounts the history of the Chippewas in the Turtle Mountains through the eyes of tribal elders, who remember it like it was yesterday.
Over tea, literature and a homecooked meal, Tom Davis and I walked through the trials of his people and his elders. “Davis” is his English name. Most who know him, call him by his Anishinabe name, “Oshkiipiness.” It means “Young Thunder.”
“One quarter of the state that they took from my people,” he shared when we sat down.
“And when they put us here, they put us here at the point of a gun. We were not allowed to leave.”
By 1904, the land of the Turtle Mountain Band of Pembina Chippewa, led by Little Shell, was reduced to a 6-by-12 mile tract of land, in a place and culture where land means everything.
“Those lands make billions of dollars today, that we don’t get no share of. My people have helped develop those potato farmers and sugar beets,” Davis explained.
“They worked there all their lives, my father, my mother. I picked potatoes by hand in my lifetime.”
In the early 1950s, they were farming just enough to survive, when Congress called for the immediate termination of multiple tribes, including the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.
“I heard my grandma and my grandma cried to my grandpa, ‘Where are we going to go now?'”
It was testimony that ultimately dropped the Tribe from the termination list. But around that same time, the U.S. government was taking drastic measures to assimilate Native people.
“They were trying to kill the Indian and save the man. They sent us to San Francisco, California. I have never experienced in my life such a cultural shock,” Davis told me, describing his time at a boarding school there.
“In those days, this was a racist place to be,” said Bernice Delorme, a Turtle Mountain citizen, lawyer and Vice President for the N.D. Veterans of Foreign Wars Auxiliary.
“I mean, the reservation was like a haven from everything else going on. I remember my mom going to the meat market in Rolette and the Indians had to go to the back door and buy the soup bones.”
Bernice Delorme was in and out of white foster homes, to an orphanage, and to a boarding school in Wahpeton.
“You know if the girls ran away, they had to wear this old beat-up dress, this green dress, and they’d put a big tear in it, right where your breast was or right where your butt was,” she shared.
“There was a railroad track behind the school and little kids used to go out there and just lay down on the railroad track, just wait for the train to come.”
Delorme went on to be the first in her family to go to college. She eventually earned four degrees.
Davis, too, went to college and raised his kids as a single father.
“Never to let that happen to my children, their children,” he explained.
He was the Tribal Planner for three decades, for a nation still ravaged by poverty. Although the land base is small, the Turtle Mountain Reservation is home to about 33,300 people, making it one of the most densely populated Reservations in the country. Davis says 68% of his Tribe lives on less than $8,000 a year.
“It’s because of the hopelessness and despair that is put upon us,” he said.
“We could lose what we have as a people. The only thing that keeps us here is our land base. We don’t want anybody infringing upon our rights to self-government. If you do, you’re going to have exactly what you had, what I explained, and us old people that lived that life, we know that.”
Davis and Delorme add, Tribal leadership has changed over the years. Delorme says elected leadership in the Turtle Mountains, today, is less representative and less rooted in cultural values.
Davis says their leaders ended up following the money, rather than the will of the people, adding that funding does not give the state the right to tell tribal citizens what to do.