By an Act of Congress on March 3, 1873, a township of land was purchased on what is now the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota for the expressed purpose of resettlement of the Pembina Band of Chippewa, including the Turtle Mountain Band, so that the United States would have the ability to abolish the claims of the Pembina/Turtle Mountain people to over 9-million acres of lands in northern North Dakota.
In 1874, the government successfully relocated about 543 people to White Earth by withholding treaty annuities unless persons took the step to self-relocate to the Agency at White Earth where they would be issued their annuities. This practice of withholding annuities created a severe hardship for the Chippewa in North Dakota, and in many cases those who did relocate to White Earth were not content with their decision. Missing home, many left the reservation and returned to Pembina and the Turtle Mountains.
Even more so, the great leader Little Shell and his headmen steadfastly refused the order to relocate, worrying that any such self-removal would be seen as the abandonment of the land they claimed in North Dakota, and that if they did relocate – even temporarily to receive annuities at White Earth – it would be a legal relinquishment of their title to their homeland. Thus, in 1874, Little Shell and his sub-chiefs traveled to Washington, DC, and pressed their claim to title and expressed their refusal to relocate.
Undeterred and turning a deaf ear to the Chippewa leadership, the government continued to withhold annuities from the Pembinas who remained at Turtle Mountain, creating significant hardships and near starvation conditions each winter. In 1880, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs noted that: “[the] portion of the Pembina band, numbering 250 persons, still [refuse to relocate to the White Earth] reservation, and are roaming over the Territory north and west, as destitute vagabonds. No better illustration of the improved condition of the Indians upon reservations over those who endeavor to subsist elsewhere could be had than the thrift, industry, and comfort, of the one, and the filth, idleness, and pitiful poverty of the other.” Congress continued to debate ways in which to force or coerce the remainder of the Pembinas to leave the Turtle Mountains, but Little Shell and his leadership would not budge.
In response, President Chester A. Arthur issued three successive executive orders creating and then diminishing the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. The first executive order was issued on December 21, 1882, identifying 20 townships as the boundaries of the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. However, two years later, President Arthur issued a second order reducing the size of the reservation from 22 to 2 townships on March 29, 1884. The rationale for reduction of the reservation was based on questionable census data and quandaries over blood quantum. The third order was issued on June 3, 1884 to remedy an oversight by the federal government regarding the location of a township adjacent to the US/Canadian international border.
Even after the creation of the reservation, the government continued to punish the Turtle Mountain people by short-changing them on annual annuities, withholding annuities, and allowing corrupt agents and others to punitively issue annuities to some people and not to others. This led to a terrible incident over the winter of 1887-1888, when 151 persons died of starvation in the Turtle Mountains. As noted by Father Genin, the Priest in charge of the Turtle Mountain Mission: “[in that year, the] United States government was made to believe so many bushels of wheat, corn and potatoes had been distributed… [however] so many things never reached the unfortunate; or, if any at all was obtained, it was only by a few favorites, while the others were rebuked and sent to do for themselves.” Genin also noted that some of the worst victims of this starvation effort were the Indians and Metis (mixed-bloods) who were part of the band, but who were seen as originating in Canada. They were provided no assistance at all and were the hardest hit. In an effort to raise money to help buy their own provisions, the Turtle Mountain people began to cut wood so they could sell it. However, in response the government sent local law enforcement to arrest the men for cutting their own wood without permission of the local agent. This event almost led to an armed conflict between the Chippewa and the police officers, and the elderly sub-chief Red Thunder was arrested and held in jail following this confrontation.
The punishment of the tribe finally ended with the negotiation of the 1892 McCumber Agreement, which settled the tribal claims to the title to their land, allowed for enrollment, and provided for the honest issuance of annuities to the Turtle Mountain Band at the expense of having to cede interest in millions of acres of land to the United States.
Ferris, Kade M (2012). Starvation in the Turtle Mountains. Turtle Mountain Heritage Center Blog.
Lafountain, L, Richard, O, et al (2007). Who I Am: A Guide To Your Turtle Mountain Home. Turtle Mountain Community College, North Dakota: Belcourt.