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An Oral History Summary of The Spirit Lake Tribe
By Vernon Lambert, Spirit Lake Tribal Member
December 12, 2012

The Spirit Lake Reservation, formerly Devils Lake Sioux Reservation, is located in the northeastern part of North Dakota. The people of Spirit Lake are often called Dakota. “Dakota” means “Allies". Allies is in reference to the seven bands that made up the government of the nation. The bands were called the Seven Council Fires and they were: the Mdewakanton; the Wahpekute; the Sisseton; the Wahpeton; the Yankton; the Yanktonais; and the Teton. The Seven Council Fires were the Dakota Nation, later referred to in treaties as the Dakota or Sioux Nations. The Dakota at Fort Totten today are called the Mni Wakan Oyate —“the people of the Sacred or Mystery Water” or the Spirit Lake Tribe.

White ethnographers’ interpretations of Dakota origins place the Dakota in many eastern parts of the United States. These narratives are many and are well documented. However, they are not Dakota beliefs.
These documents can be found in Indian studies departments or in the Minnesota Historical Society archives. However, recent colonized scientific findings in the Granite Falls and Browns Valley Man archeological sites confirm that aboriginal ancestors of the Dakota lived in Minnesota from 8,000 to 10,000 years ago.

According to Dakota oral history, the Dakota believed they were always in the area around the Minnesota River at Mille Lacs Lake. According to Dakota philosophy, the belief is that all living things originated from a great mysterious creator (God). In this philosophical context, the origin of the Dakota comes from the Creator and is a mystery, a truth only the Creator knows. If the Creator should want his people to know this, he would surely give them a sign. Dakota oral historians and holy men living in Dakota communities and reservations may share this information. In the Dakotas’ oral civilization their belief and faith in the Creator were so great that they did not immortalize their special gifted people. They knew the Creator gave them their special gifts and only the Creator was immortal. Their history only went back several generations because they knew no matter how far back they went they would come to the point where the Creator made them.

The ancestors of todays “Mni Wakan Oyate” (the People of the Sacred or Mystery Water) are the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands. While the term Santee (Isanti) has been applied by non-Indian writers to all the Eastern Dakota as a group as well as to the linguistically and culturally related Lakota west of the Missouri River and to the Nakota in Montana and the Dakotas, the word Isanti only applies today to the Mdewakanton, Sisseton, Wahpeton, and Wahpekute. The United States made two treaties with the Isantis in 1851, one at Traverse Des Sioux with the Sisseton and Wahpeton and one at Mendota with the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute. In these two treaties the Isantis gave up all of their land claims in Minnesota and Iowa and agreed to protect the Whites from their enemies as an ally nation. In return they were to recieve a land base in Dakota Territory, annuities and a sum of money. These treaties were negotiated orally and, after the negotiations the Sisseton and Wahpeton representatives shook hands with the American representatives and smoked the pipe finalizing the agreement. Later when the Americans further documented the treaties in writing and ratified them in Washington, DC, they struck out mention of the land base in Dakota Territory for which the ceded land was to be exchanged and which was to be given to the Sisseton and Wahpeton Bands. The Americans took the land ceded by the Isantis and temporarily placed them on a strip of land along the Minnesota River until their new homeland was secured as promised in the treaties. After eleven years of waiting, of annuities not being delivered and of their money being given to the traders by the Indian Agent, the 1862 Minnesota War started. After the 1862 Minnesota War the United States cancelled both treaties with the four Isanti Bands, blaming them for the war when in fact it was the United States fault.

After the 1862 Minnesota War approximately 1500 Isantis were imprisoned in concentration camps in Fort Snelling and Mankato, Minnesota and in Davenport, Iowa. Thirty eight of the warriors being held in Mankato were hanged in the largest mass hanging in United States history. The rest of the prisoners were eventually sent to Crow Creek in present day South Dakota. Another group of approximately, 1300 Isantis, fled to the Dakotas and settled in the Sisseton, South Dakota area, the Fort Totten, North Dakota area and some went on into the Sioux Valley, Manitoba, Canada area. In 1867 the United States declared the Sisseton and Wahpeton Bands were not responsible for the 1862 War and in fact lived up to their 1851 treaty obligations, and so the United States reinstated the Sisseton and Wahpeton Bands’ treaty rights and negotiated and finalized the 1867 treaty between the Sisseton and Wahpeton Bands of Sioux and the United States of America. In this treaty the Sisseton and Wahpeton Bands agreed to let a band of Yanktonais, Cutheads who had run off from Standing Rock, and a group of Chippewa/French mixed bloods working for the soldiers, live on their newly acquired homeland, the reservation of the Sisseton and Wahpeton of Devils Lake.

When our Sisseton and Wahpeton Nations agreed to the treaties of 1851 and 1867, they negotiated in good faith using the values passed down in our oral traditions, while the United States ultimately negotiated on paper as a colonizing power. When one goes back to the time the treaties were made and considers the two governments' interpretations, one appreciates many conflicts arising from unshared assumptions between oral and text-based nations, but there should have been no conflict over the principle enshrined in international law, and recognized at the time by all parties, that if a treaty was broken by either nation, the settlement goes back to the status quo ante previous to the treaty date. Indian treaties with the United States prior to March 3, 1871 are under International Treaty Law. That's why it is so important for contemporary American Indians to begin learning, understanding and practicing the distinctive standards of their oral civilization. For in discussing our treaties with representatives of the United States or of foreign countries, we need to communicate as members of non-American tribal nations founded on oral traditions and not just as American citizens who can read and write. The 1867 treaty authorized (and still authorizes) us as a foreign nation to form our own government and legislate laws for the protection of our people. Our treaty government is meant to work with the local Indian Agent and Indian Agency in establishing a foreign ambassador
and foreign embassy. The treaty states that from time to time the U.S. Congress shall appropriate funds to employ teachers and establish and support local academic and commercial schools to help our people make the transition from the economy of the chase to agriculture, industry, or business. The appropriations were intended for the improvement (not the elimination) of our oral civilization. The treaty makes the U.S. responsible for our health, elder and handicap care. The treaty of 1867 contains specific language to the effect that as an allied nation we agreed to protect the U.S. and use the appropriated funds to rebuild our oral civilization.

As it turned out, however the Sisseton and Wahpeton Bands of Devils Lake were never allowed to rebuild their oral civilization or develop a treaty government. The U.S. Congress added an amendment to the Indian Appropriation Act of March 3, 1871 which ended treaty making with Indian tribes. By a rider inserted in the Act it was provided "That hereafter no Indian nation or tribe within the territory of the United States shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation, tribe, or power with whom the United States may contract by treaty; Provided, further, that nothing herein contained shall be construed to invalidate or impair the obligation of any treaty heretofore lawfully made and ratified with any such Indian nation or tribe". The United States no longer wanted to recognize Indian tribes as international sovereigns and instead decided to assimilate them. However, the language in the law states that all Indian treaties made before March 3, 1871 would be honored without impairment or change. But these treaties were not honored; instead assimilation was illegally forced on the treaty tribes. Even though illegal, according to the 1871 Act, the 1873 Agreement with the Sisseton and Wahpeton Bands was formulated by the Indian Agent as a treaty amendment and ratified by the United States. It gave the U.S. over 50% of the permanent homeland of our reservation and all the land which we agreed to lease to the U.S. in the 1867 treaty. In 1872, however our ancestors had orally requested through the Indian Agent payment from the U.S. for its 1851 treaty obligations in Minnesota and lease payments for lands the U.S. was leasing from the Dakota. The U.S. agreed to these requests in oral agreements made in 1872 by shaking hands and smoking the pipe. These agreements were violated by what was written a year later.

From 1871 to 1924 the United States did many things to regulate the tribes with treaties. Many laws were passed for the Indian tribes including the 1873 Agreement; the Major Crimes Act; the Dawes Act; the Homestead Act on Tribal Lands; the Winters Doctrine, the Snyder Act and many more. These laws are all illegal because no nation can pass laws except for its’ own citizens. At this time Indians were not U.S. citizens. To preclude objections to the attempts to regulate Treaty Tribes in violation of three Indian sovereignty clauses of the U.S. Constitution, Congress passed the 1924 American Citizenship Act, giving all Indians a second identity as American Citizens. Conferring American citizenship on Indian people, whatever the advantages, does not abolish the sovereignty of their nations, however. This principle of Indian sovereignty and nationhood, together with the long history of U.S. violations of that principle, is something we were never taught. Instead we were forced to be educated only as Americans. Rather than letting us establish our own treaty-ordained government as Sisseton and Wahpeton Dakotas, the Indian Agent and his staff chose yes-men or cronies to implement the assimilation process. We have never been allowed to govern ourselves as an international sovereign, either before or after becoming American citizens, despite the fact that the Treaty ensures our right to rebuild our oral civilization.
After becoming American citizens in 1924 we have yet to be treated as full-fledged Americans. State governments have no jurisdiction on Indian reservations. In 1934 the United States passed the Indian Reorganization Act, a federal law which gives Indian tribes the right to govern themselves – - a quasi sovereignty that is not the the same sovereign powers granted in treaties, but that comprises a third identity for treaty tribes. Their other two identities consist of (1) the greater sovereignty presupposed in the United States originally making treaties with them nation to nation and (2) their status as communities of American citizens. Our ancestors did not adopt the Indian Reorganization Act, the people voted against it in 1935. Our people adopted a constitution and bylaws in 1944 which was ratified by the United States in February of 1946. We chose the name Devils Lake Sioux Tribe. We became a federally recognized tribe funded through the Indian Reorganization Act. This quasi sovereignty is not the same as the treaty sovereignty; in fact the treaty has been inactive since 1871. In 1996 we amended the constitution and changed our name to Spirit Lake Tribe.

Today as the Spirit Lake Tribe we have two K-12 Schools on the reservation, a two year Community College, an elected tribal government to govern our population of 6900, a casino and resort, a U.S. Department of Defense contracting business, several farms and ranches. We have a water resource program that supplies water to our nation and an EPA program that monitors our waters, the health of our wetlands, solid waste sites, asbestos and lead abatement, air quality and other environmental issues. Most importantly we are educating our citizens on how to be dual citizens and we are starting to rebuild our tribal citizenship.


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