The name “Little Shell” was carried by three head Chiefs of the Pembina/Turtle Mountain Band. The title was assumed by each, in turn, as he succeeded to the chieftainship. Each had his individual name by which he was known to his friends and relatives. According to Turtle Mountain Chippewa history, the title Little Shell was handed down from father to son.
Soon after the Pembina Band’s emergence as a separate band of Chippewa, the first Chief Little Shell was recognized as its chief. The residence of the first Little Shell was near Devil's Lake on what is now known as Graham’s Island. Little Shell also oversaw other villages in the Turtle Mountains, in addition to camps west of present-day Rugby, near a small lake south of Willow City, and another village near Buffalo Lodge Lake. He was killed by a party of Dakota Sioux sometime around 1812 while encamped at his home at Graham’s Island.
Following the death of the first Little Shell, Chief Black Duck – his father-in-law – assumed leadership of the band. Chief Black Duck maintained a camp at the Turtle Mountains, oversaw the villages near Pembina and Walhalla, and lived in his main village at Stump Lake. His Stump Lake village was at the location of a former Hidatsa Village – the last Hidatsa Village east of the Missouri River – which Black Duck and his warriors had taken by force around 1800. Black Duck served as the leader of the Pembina not as a hereditary chief, but as a sort of ‘regent’ until the son of the first Little Shell came of age and could assume his role as leader. Black Duck and his warriors were killed by a party of Dakota Sioux near the present-day community of Wild Rice, North Dakota, and Little Shell II finally came to leadership.
Although always recognized by the Pembina as their leader, following his assumption of the role after Black Duck, Little Shell II was formally recognized by the United States Government as Chief of the Pembina Band during negotiations of the failed 1851 Treaty at Pembina. By 1862, he was referred to most frequently as chief of the Turtle Mountain Band, but was also acknowledged to the supreme leader of the Pembina Chippewa. This leadership was unchallenged, even by Chief Red Bear who, prior to treaty negotiations in 1863, had indicated that Little Shell was the true head chief of the Pembina people.
During the Treaty negotiations of 1863, both Little Shell and Red Bear served as signers. However, Little Shell refused to sign the amended Treaty of 1864, with only Red Bear signing on behalf of the Pembina. Following his somewhat contested signing of the Treaty, Red Bear's sub-band was forced to leave the Red River Valley as part of the cession and members of his group, as well as few others from the Turtle Mountain area, were relocated on the White Earth Reservation in 1873. The majority of his sub-band members joined their relatives in the Turtle Mountain area under Little Shell instead.
Shortly thereafter, the third Little Shell chief came to power. His first order of business was to negotiate with Washington, hoping to secure an amenable treaty for his people and a reservation that would serve them as a permanent homeland against the encroachment of settlers. During his delegation of 1876, Little Shell and the other leaders of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa made a petition to the US Government asking for a settlement of their issues. They made several key points and concessions, and asked for considerations for their request to cede over 9-million acres of land in North Dakota. Among their main points were to define their territory formally with the government, to lodge a complaint about the establishment of the Sioux reservation at Devils Lake, and to ask for the establishment of a formal reservation of 50 by 60 miles in the area surrounding the Turtle Mountains. Unfortunately, the government refused to act upon their petition and soon thereafter a smaller reservation was established by Executive order in 1882. This reservation was further diminished in 1884 to the present-day size of 6 by 12 miles. The reduction of the reservation remained a bone of contention for Little Shell throughout all future negotiations with the government.
In 1892, negotiations between the government and the tribe were arbitrarily commenced in order to settle the title to 10-million acres of land yet unceded by Little Shell and the Turtle Mountain Band. The negotiating committee was headed by P. J. McCumber, and became known as the McCumber Commission. Even though Little Shell was the hereditary chief of the Band, the McCumber Committee refused to negotiate with him and his council – forcing Little Shell to walk out of the negotiations in protest. Taking advantage of this, McCumber instead undercut Little Shell by dealing with a “Committee of 32” which had been elected the previous year to deal with some internal problems within the tribe.
The result of this negotiation was the so-called “Ten Cent Treaty” by which the Turtle Mountain Band, under the Committee of 32, agreed to cede their claims to their nearly 10-million acres of land for one-million dollars. This “treaty” was quickly contested by Little Shell and his council, who spent the next twelve years in a legal battle with the US Government. As a result, the Ten Cent Treaty was never ratified by Congress. Finally, Little Shell III passed away in 1904 and Congress quickly ratified an amended McCumber Agreement which required the Turtle Mountain Band to release all claims against the United States as a prerequisite to obtaining their much-needed annuities from the government.
BEFORE THE INDIAN CLAIMS COMMISSION DOCKET 113, TURTLE MOUNTAIN BAND OF CHIPPEWA INDIANS, PETITIONER, V. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, DEFENDANT. PETITIONERS PROPOSED FINDINGS OF FACT AND BRIEF, DOCKET: ICC 18-A INDIAN CLAIMS COMMISSION, FEBRUARY 27, 1951