FARGO — The Lake Traverse Reservation of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate juts into the southeastern edge of North Dakota, while the rest of the triangular stretch of land sits in South Dakota.
When the U.S. government created the Spirit Lake Reservation in east central North Dakota, the Lake Traverse Reservation was also established. The people who live there are bands of the Sioux tribe, the Sisseton and the Wahpeton, who form "Oyate," which means "nation."
“The story of the Sisseton and Wahpeton tribes is one of movement, sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly,” according to the book "The History and Culture of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota". “Beginning in the East, they have moved or been moved further and further to the West until they were eventually ‘given’ the present Lake Traverse Reservation.”
The Sisseton and Wahpeton comprise the eastern division, aka the Santee, of the Great Sioux Tribe, which also had a middle division, the Yankton, and a western division, the Teton. The Santee were believed to be the first to settle in the Great Lakes area, around Mille Lacs Lake, and the last to move out.
While moving away from Mille Lacs Lake, the Sissetons split into north and south groups, and the Wahpetons were situated in between. By the end of the 18th Century, the northern Sissetons lived at the head of the Minnesota and Red Rivers from Lake Traverse to Ottertail Lake. The southern Sissetons settled southwest of the Minnesota River, and the Waheptons were very close to the southern Sissetons.
The “Golden Age” for the Santee lasted from 1780 to 1850; the bands moved freely, hunting and trapping without restriction, and warring with other tribes. Though there were epidemics and severe winters, the North Sissetons, Wahpetons and Yanktonaise at Lake Traverse and Big Stone Lake were far enough away from colonial effects.
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In 1851, in the Treaty of Traverse Des Sioux, the U.S. government negotiated with the Sissetons and Wahpetons and others, purchasing all of the land in Minnesota and Iowa and the Eastern strip of South Dakota for six cents per acre and other goods.
In exchange, the eastern Dakota were restricted to a strip of land from the Yellow Medicine River to the south end of Lake Traverse. An upper agency on the reservation, located at the mouth of the Yellow Medicine River served the Sissetons and Wahpetons by carrying out the distribution of money and goods. The lower agency served other bands of the eastern Dakota, the Mdewakantons and Wahpekutes.
By 1862, about 175 families of Sissetons and Wahpetons who had moved there were raising crops. But the Dakota were becoming increasingly frustrated as payments due to the tribes for the land largely went to white traders in the area, who claimed the tribes owed them money. Military officers later reported most of the food promised to the Dakota as a result of the treaties never made it past St. Paul. And those in the lower agency soon made a last stand to regain their lands in the Minnesota Uprising of 1862.
The bands of Sisseton and Wahpeton were scattered over the plains after the uprising. In 1867, the bands made a new treaty with the U.S., which created two reservations. A wedge-shaped piece of land was designated as the Sisseton Reservation, stretching from Lake Kampeska to the James River to Lake Traverse. The other reservation at Devils Lake was created for the groups still wandering the plains.
By 1874, 1,677 people lived at the Lake Traverse Reservation. Now, the tribe has 13,872 members total, not all of whom live on the reservation.
Note: In honor of Native American Heritage Month, The Forum will publish a weekly piece on the histories of the five tribal nations that reside within North Dakota: Spirit Lake, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, Standing Rock Sioux, and the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara nations.
The histories of these nations have been gathered from texts printed by the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction as well as from the tribal nations themselves. The texts can be found on the department’s website. These recounts will end at the establishment of the reservations. The articles are a much shorter version of the total history and should be used as a supplement, not a replacement, to the wide breadth of knowledge gathered by the department and historical society and passed down through tribal elders.