The Turtle Mountain Metis classified as Indians
With many Indigenous communities that ended up within the legal dominion of the United States or Canada, there was a great deal of confusion and disagreement over how to identify some groups – especially when these groups possessed unique or broadly diverse cultural identities. For the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians of North Dakota this is especially true.
The Turtle Mountain Band is comprised of a western band of Plains Ojibwa with a predominant population of mixed-bloods (Metis) people who had their historical origins in the borderlands of the United States and Canada. Modern-day Turtle Mountain tribal members refer to themselves in many different ways. Some identify as Ojibwe, some as Chippewa, others as Metis or Michif. Nonetheless, they are all part of the same community and are legally termed as ‘Chippewa’ by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The term Chippewa became the formal classification given to all people living at Turtle Mountain, regardless of their individual cultural identity or degree of Indian blood. This is because the United States Indian bureaucracy of the late 1800s and early 1900s could not grasp the nuanced cultural realities of the close blood ties and the manner in which those who identified as Michif/Metis and those who identified as Indian/full-blood coexisted within the community – maintaining a joint, yet separate culture and identity. Because of this, Indian Affairs devised their own interpretation. Even though many of the people at Turtle Mountain would rightly be called Metis or half-breed in Canada, the United States government did not have such a concept available to use to differentiate or classify its indigenous people. “Metis” did not necessarily meet any standing criteria, so the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the courts could only use the term Chippewa or Indian to classify the majority of the population.
The close blood ties between the Chippewa and Metis band members were evident in how the leadership of the Turtle Mountain Band viewed things. Many of the Metis members crossed back and forth across the border on a regular basis (as they were accustomed). The government took issue with this, as they worried that new “indians” were flooding into the United States and burdening the government with more potential wards. When the Metis refused to pay any customs duties levied by the collector stationed at Pembina, the government took issue. The customs officials met with Chief Little Shell and 200 half-breeds. The Customs officer claimed that only “…ten of seventy half-breeds who crossed the border had paid the required duty”. Little Shell objected to the government’s treatment of the Metis as non-Indian. He told the collector: “…these are all my lands and these are all my people. They shall pay no duties and respect no Customs officers. I have many more children across the line, and I shall bring them all over. We recognize no boundary line, and shall pass as we please."
Read more: "The Turtle Mountain Indians." NYT July 27, 1882:2.