IV. Life on the Lake Traverse Reservation of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota

In the Lake Traverse area, Fort Wadsworth was built on August 1, 1864, and eventually renamed Fort Sisseton. Some of the Sisseton and Wahpeton families had settled in the area after the men had been employed by General Sibley as scouts at Camp Release to assist in locating those deemed hostile. Two treaty negotiations had been attempted in 1864 and 1866, before the commitment was made for a delegation of the Sisseton and Wahpeton of the area to travel to Washington, D.C. to secure a reservation at Lake Traverse. The Treaty of 1867 set apart two reservations--one at Lake Traverse and one at Spirit Lake (called Devils Lake by the Whites) in what would become North Dakota. “The Lake Traverse Reservation included 918,780 acres of land. This included an area from the head of the Lake Traverse, to Lake Kampeska, a straight line to the northeast point of the Coteau des Prairies, north to Lake Tiwakan, and a direct line back to Lake Traverse.”

In the decades following the establishment of the Lake Traverse Reservation (also commonly called the Sisseton Reservation), the tribal leadership was approached again to enter into an agreement disclaiming any title to the lands north of the reservation in the Red River Valley and to approve of allotments for those actively cultivating the reservation lands. The first agreement of 1872 failed to be ratified. In 1873, the agreement was amended and ratified, striking out the allotment sections. The land cession for the Red River valley area valued the acreage at ten cents per acre for eight million acres. “This ridiculously low sum was supposed to help the Indians become entirely self-supporting by the end of ten years. The government hired a farmer, carpenter, blacksmith and miller to assist and train the Indians.”

A. Losing Ground: Allotment and the U.S. Supreme Court 1975 DeCoteau Decision

The pressure of land-hungry Whites followed the Sisseton and Wahpeton to their new reservation in Dakota Territory. In the late 1800s, Whites continued to encroach onto reservation lands repeating the situations that occurred in Minnesota.

Some cattle ranchers were using Indian land for grazing, although they were supposed to leave in the winter, they did not always and were actually living on reservation land. Because of non-Indians living illegally on a small strip at the eastern edge of the reservation, the boundary line was moved and this land was eliminated from the reservation.

On the national level, the U.S. Congress on February 8, 1887, passed significant legislation authorizing the U.S. President to determine the reserved lands of a Tribe available for allotment, and the sale of the “surplus lands” remaining after the allotments were divided up. This was the General Allotment Act, commonly referred to as the Dawes Act. Senator Henry Dawes was one of the architects of the allotment law and had led a prior effort in the House of Representatives to politically halt the ability of further treaties with Tribes. The 1871 rider to an appropriations bill 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 . . . .” This national effort to divide up tribal lands and no longer enter into treaties with Tribal Nations would soon impact the Sisseton and Wahpeton on the Lake Traverse Reservation.

As White pressure from settlers, railroads, and government officials was exerted on the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribal leadership, the Indian legislature established on the reservation at first rejected all negotiations due to the unpaid amounts that the U.S. government still owed. Further pressure resulted in a draft agreement to allot reservation lands in 1889 and value the sale of surplus lands at $2.50 per acre, although the lands were actually worth $5 to $10 per acre. This negotiation included the payment of the old claim, which amounted to $700,000 owed by the U.S. government, but this amount was later reduced. The allotment agreement was delayed by those in opposition to the provisions, notably the recognized chief of the Sisseton-Wahpeton, TiWakan (Gabriel Renville).

As crops failed and hunger conditions set in on the Lake Traverse Reservation, more consensus was gained to enter into an agreement with the U.S. government for the selling of surplus lands to bring in needed funds for families. In 1891, the agreement was ratified by the U.S. Congress and allotment began on the reservation. The preamble to the agreement began with a recitation of the provisions of the General Allotment and then stated a summary of the purpose of the Act intended by the Sisseton-Wahpeton as follows:

Whereas the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of Dakota or Sioux Indians are desirous of disposing of a portion of the land set apart and reserved to them by the third article of the treaty of February nineteenth, eighteen hundred and sixty-seven, between them and the United States, and situated partly in the State of North Dakota and partly in the State of South Dakota . . . .

Allotment parcels previously made were increased to reach 160 acres, which was the amount under the new agreement. Children under the age of twenty-one were to be allotted forty-acre parcels. A trust period of twenty-five years was imposed by the U.S. government and declared Indians incompetent under the law to stop land sales. After allotments, the remaining lands were to be purchased by the U.S. government at $2.50 per acre, which would lead to opening the reservation to White settlers. The scouts' payments were included under the agreement as a per capita payment of $376,578.37.

The flow of whiskey onto the reservation impacted the tribal members when the payments came in under the allotment agreement. “Whiskey was relatively easy to obtain now that white settlers were everywhere and towns had sprung up; the agent reported in the fall of 1891 that the agency jail had been well filled for a time after the payment of annuities.” Whites were ready to flood the reservation as soon as the official announcement was made that lands were available.

The official opening of the reservation to Whites occurred on April 15, 1892. At noon “the opening shots were fired, and the people situated on each section and half section lines on each side of the reservation poured into the reservation lands to establish claims.” The town of Sisseton was set out as a township on the very same day. Along with the loss of the unallotted lands, the Sisseton and Wahpeton often sold their allotments in times of hardship. An amendment was passed to the General Allotment Act in 1906 called the Burke Act, which permitted Indian agents to declare allottees competent and, therefore, able to sell their allotments. This led to a further loss of lands on the reservation.

Between the passage of the act in May, 1906, and September 1, 1907, thirty-one applications for patents had been favorably acted upon, and the only reason there were not more was that the Sisseton agent and his clerks were so weighted down with paper work connected with farming and grazing leases and the sales of inherited and non-competent lands that they were unable to process the applications as fast as they were presented.

By the 1910s and 1920s, the Indian agents allowed large-scale leasing of the lands to Whites and approved the selling of thousands of acres every year. “By 1910, some 20,000 acres had been sold, usually bringing a price of about $14 an acre. In the next few decades land continued to be sold at a fast rate; there were usually at least 3,000 acres a year sold.”

White racism continued to be a factor during this time as well on the Lake Traverse Reservation.

Except for their willingness to sell moonshine to the Indians, lease their lands (illegally if possible), and buy up the farms of those who had been issued patents, the white people on and around the Sisseton Reservation were not inclined to have much to do with their Indian neighbors. Although the Indians were permitted to vote and to sit on juries, many whites were prejudiced against them as a race because of the laziness and shiftlessness of a few.

This racism even extended to the sentiment that the Sisseton-Wahpeton children not be admitted to area public schools and the inaction on the part of White local officials to prosecute crimes against or by Sisseton-Wahpeton people. Racism, combined with lack of opportunity in tribal communities and continued Bureau of Indian Affairs control, contributed further to poverty and social ills throughout the 1900s up through the 1960s and 1970s. “The decline continued over the years and in 1958 the tribe was listed as the poorest in the country with a per capita wealth of $19.12.”

In the 1970s, the Sisseton-Wahpeton were yet to experience an even greater sense of injustice at the hands of the Whites, this time regarding the homeland established at the Lake Traverse Reservation. South Dakota state public employees, particularly social workers and law enforcement, during this time aggressively dealt with Sisseton-Wahpeton families and peoples. Two separate court actions challenging the authority of state employees on the Lake Traverse Reservation would have devastating consequences for the Sisseton-Wahpeton peoples. United States ex rel. Feather v. Erickson involved the claims of ten Sisseton-Wahpeton men who had been arrested on the Lake Traverse Reservation by state law enforcement, convicted in state courts, and sentenced to terms in state prisons. The Eighth Circuit ruled that the boundaries of the Lake Traverse Reservation had not changed since 1867, and the state courts lacked jurisdiction to prosecute crimes by tribal members on the reservation. In holding that the U.S. Congress had not indicated a clear intent to disestablish the reservation, the Eighth Circuit reversed its prior ruling in the 1963 DeMarrias v. State of South Dakota case, which had held that the crime committed within the reservation boundaries was subject to state jurisdiction and not Indian country.

The second case involved a challenge to South Dakota's jurisdiction by a mother seeking to recover her two young boys who had been taken by state social workers from a relative's house. DeCoteau v. District Country Court progressed through the South Dakota state courts and upon reaching the U.S. Supreme Court was consolidated with the appeal by South Dakota of the Eighth Circuit's Feather decision. The U.S. Supreme Court in the DeCoteau decision held that the “1891 Act terminated the Lake Traverse Reservation, and that consequently the state courts have jurisdiction over conduct on non-Indian lands within the 1867 reservation borders.” Thus, one hundred eight years after the creation of the reservation for the Sisseton-Wahpeton peoples, the land holding was reduced to whatever trust allotments still existed, and the reservation boundaries were held to be terminated. According to the tribal laws of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, tribal jurisdiction still exists to the full extent of the 1867 boundaries in both civil and criminal cases. The continued coercion for land cession agreements by the United States from the 1851 Treaty to the 1891 allotment agreement of the Lake Traverse Reservation are in violation of the basic recognition of the right of Indigenous peoples to live in and own their homelands. The 1975 DeCoteau decision by the U.S. Supreme Court is another branch of the U.S. government acting to further dispossess the Sisseton-Wahpeton peoples of their reserved homeland at Lake Traverse and subject them to the mercy of the state authorities who have exhibited racism throughout the history of White interaction in the area.

B. Poverty and Inadequate Quality of Life: Wintertime Continues

Turning to an examination of the quality of life experienced by the Sisseton-Wahpeton peoples, from the late 1800s, poverty and hunger have been constant factors in the lives of the peoples. This has been attributed to the refugee status imposed through the U.S. Indian policy of locating the Sisseton-Wahpeton peoples on small parcels of land not well suited to farming or other industry and depriving the peoples of the traditional ways of providing food for their families. Few inroads have been made to curb the poverty at the Lake Traverse Reservation or for other tribal communities across mid-North America.

1. Income Data and Poverty Indicators: Continued Refugee Status for Many

The quality of life for the Sisseton-Wahpeton peoples is difficult to detail because reliable data is next to nonexistent. In recent years, the U.S. Census Bureau issued a publication, Tribal Governments Liaison Handbook, which provided that from 1890 to 1950 “[c] ensus-takers mainly use[d] observation to identify American Indians and Alaska Natives.” The U.S. Census Bureau statistics from an April 1995 report of the U.S. Census Bureau on Housing of American Indians on Reservations--Equipment and Fuels demonstrated that American Indian households lacked full kitchen amenities and were without basic telephone services. On the Lake Traverse Reservation, 50.5% of American Indian households lacked basic telephone services and 0.9% lacked full kitchen amenities (refrigeration, sink with drain pipe, etc.).

On the Annie E. Casey Foundation website, census data is summarized in tables for the populations on the Lake Traverse Reservation based on the 2000 U.S. Census. This website indicated that 44.9% of the American Indian population under the age of eighteen on the Lake Traverse Reservation was living in poverty in 2000. In addition, the median family income in 1999, as reported in the 2000 census for American Indian families, was $20,662 from a sample size of 727 families. This median was approximately $17,500 below the median for White families with a sample size of 1908 families and approximately $6000 below the median for families of two or more races with a sample size of 34. The 2010 Census Demographic Profile for the Lake Traverse Reservation reported 4393 American Indians out of a total population of 10,992 inhabitants. Thus, the American Indian population, logically composed of primarily Sisseton-Wahpeton peoples, is outnumbered by Whites and experiences a much lower annual income than Whites on their own reservation.

In 2003, the Bureau of Indian Affairs released a report on the American Indian Labor Force. According to this report, the number of Sisseton-Wahpeton peoples on or near the Lake Traverse Reservation available for work was 7135, and of that number, only 1250 were employed. Therefore, the unemployment rate in 2003 was 82%. Additionally, the percentage of those employed who still remained below the poverty level was 33%.
These statistics demonstrate that a sizeable portion of the Sisseton-Wahpeton peoples are living in poverty on the Lake Traverse Reservation, a legacy that has continued for over 133 years since the reservation was established. On the national level, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a report in July 2003 on the quality of life experienced by Native Americans.

Native Americans have a lower life expectancy--nearly six years less--and higher disease occurrence than other racial/ethnic groups. Roughly 13 percent of Native American deaths occur among those under the age of 25, a rate three times more than that of the total U.S. population. Native American youth are more than twice as likely to commit suicide, and nearly 70 percent of all suicidal acts in Indian Country involve alcohol. Native Americans are 670 percent more likely to die from alcoholism, 650 percent more likely to die from tuberculosis, 318 percent more likely to die from diabetes, and 204 percent more likely to suffer accidental death when compared with other groups. These disparities exist because of disproportionate poverty, poor education, cultural differences, and the absence of adequate health service delivery in most Native communities.

These dismal statistics demonstrate the inhumane treatment Indigenous peoples in the United States receive when they remain in their homelands and maintain their collective status. Health services are inadequate, economic opportunities are inadequate in tribal communities for a variety of reasons that are related to the government control still exerted, and the quality of life overall does not meet the standard experienced by others in the country.

2. Poverty Consequences: Substance Abuse and Incarceration Rates

In conjunction with poverty, there are attendant ills that people experience. For the Sisseton-Wahpeton peoples, a host of social ills continues to persistent on the Lake Traverse Reservation. Many of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota peoples living on reservations in South Dakota have experienced this ongoing refugee status.

Several of these Indian reservations have experienced “persistent poverty”--a condition of longstanding and chronic economic distress meaning that poverty has become a way of life for generations of Indian families. When a child is born into a family that has been wretchedly deprived for generations, the child inherits a poverty of spirit as well. The family's constant struggle to subsist has inherently changed the way he looks at the world. The physical and mental strain of poverty, as well as the constant and pervasive government presence in a person's daily life, be it the tribe, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or the state or county authorities, often trigger rebellious behavior, which in turn leads to confrontations with law enforcement and the courts.

The confrontation with state law enforcement on the Lake Traverse Reservation and the criticism of officers of the local state courts has been a constant refrain by the Sisseton-Wahpeton peoples for decades. The Lake Traverse Reservation spans across five counties in South Dakota and two counties in North Dakota, leading to interactions with a variety of state officials in both states.

In 1999, several high-profile homicide cases with Native American victims in South Dakota involving lack of prosecution by state and federal officials led to the state of South Dakota's Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights holding a series of forums. The resulting report of the Advisory Committee contained testimony from tribal members from many of the nine reservations in the state, including the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation. Concerns were raised in relation to the Roberts County court officials and law enforcement, a county in the middle of the upper portion of the Lake Traverse Reservation.

In 1999 Roberts County South Dakota officials retained an outside firm to prepare a feasibility study of current and future needs of the county's jail. The firm's November 1999 report, Justice Center Planning: Roberts County, states that over the past 6 years, 75-85 percent of the county's inmates were Native American. According to the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, tribal members make up only 23 percent of the Roberts County population.

Testimony from Sisseton-Wahpeton people included discussion of the disproportionate rates of being pulled over by state law enforcement, and the higher likelihood of disproportion rates of arrest due to the patrolling routes of state law enforcement through areas frequented by tribal members. One Sisseton-Wahpeton mother spoke about her son's death after a pickup truck driven by a young, White man hit him. Even though a state grand jury indicted the driver on vehicular homicide, DUI, a probation violation, and underage consumption, the state prosecutor requested the judge throw out all charges except the DUI and probation violation. “The driver ‘got absolutely nothing for the death of my son,’ she told the Committee.”

Another parent, a Sisseton-Wahpeton father, spoke of the unfair sentencing of his daughter after she took responsibility for breaking the law. The young woman had just turned eighteen and was driving while intoxicated when she hit someone with her vehicle. Thereafter she pled guilty to vehicular homicide. The court sentenced her to fourteen years in the South Dakota State Penitentiary for Women; the maximum sentence permitted was fifteen years.

Melanie's sentence was nearly 3 times more severe than any other sentence handed down in the circuit for a comparable offense, [Melanie's father] discovered. The harshest sentence for vehicular manslaughter or homicide was 5 years, and some defendants served no time at all, he said. The only female defendant among the 10 cases pled guilty to vehicular homicide, like Melanie, but received a suspended sentence of 5 years, he added.

Steps have been taken by tribal officials to assist with the high rates of substance abuse. In a 2007 Final Report on the SWO Indian Alcohol Substance Abuse Program (IASAP) demonstration project submitted by the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate to the U.S. Department of Justice, tribal officials and project researchers reported relevant tribal statistics as follows :
The Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe

According to the U.S. Census, the SWO tribal population in 2000 was 12,063; median age was 24.5. Over 59 percent of the households reported youth living at home under 18 years of age. Data from a special tribal census conducted in 2003 indicate that over 60 percent of the tribe lived in poverty, and 40 percent are unemployed. Alcohol abuse, lack of jobs, lack of job skills, and lack of education are cited as major barriers to employment.

An application for the project was motivated due to events from 2001 to 2003 when “the community became alarmed when ten young adults, ages 15-24, died (eight in a two week period) in alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents. The devastation spurred the SWO tribal government and programs to form a task force to explore ways to address this problem.” From the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate's Health Care Center data from 2007, it was reported that “for 2000 and 2005, 32 SWO youth were hospitalized or treated for AOD [alcohol and other drug] problems, 50 children and youth (ages 5-18) were treated or hospitalized as a result of motor vehicle accidents” demonstrating a high rate of health issues from both substance use and motor vehicle collisions.

As the reports highlighted in this section illustrate, the Sisseton-Wahpeton peoples are not enjoying a high quality of life, for the most part. Income data indicated that unrelenting poverty plagues the tribal communities on the Lake Traverse Reservation. Unemployment rates are far beyond the national average. A sense of injustice continues to permeate Dakota-White relations and is perceived as having a contemporary impact on the incarceration and prosecution of Sisseton-Wahpeton peoples disproportionately. Alcohol and drug abuse has been passed from one generation to the next and jeopardizes the lives of tribal youth. Thus, human rights violations continue to be perpetrated against the Sisseton-Wahpeton peoples and documented, but no remedies have been offered.