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1890 Drought and Hardship for Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate


On this date in 1890, an article in the Jamestown Weekly Alert addressed the suffering and difficulties of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. Drought on the Lake Traverse Reservation had resulted in failed crops, leaving the tribe with few resources, and close to starvation. Families sold valuable ponies and oxen, and the scarce timber was cut and sold.

Chief Renville and the other leading members of the tribe called upon William McKusick, the Sisseton Indian Agent, telling him that: “…destitution and poverty should not be allowed to continue.” McKusick then wrote the Office of Indian Affairs, asking Congress for $2000 for flour, pork, and beans to sustain the tribe until the annuities from the Government were paid for the coming year.

The annuities were compensation for land ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux in 1851. Nearly 24 million acres of fertile land was sold. The land reached from southern Minnesota, into the Dakotas, and north into Canada. The government agreed to pay the tribes three cents an acre every year for 50 years.

Looming starvation brought rising anxiety to the tribes, and many of their members participated in the Ghost Dance spiritual movement, “which taught that Indians had been defeated and confined to reservations because they had angered the gods by abandoning their traditional customs.” (history.com). By December, tensions reached a boiling point, leading to the tragic massacre at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

When considering the history of North Dakota, it is common to focus on the narrative of the European-American immigrant – the mythic pioneer coming to the plains to start a new life, blazing new trails with independence, courage, and a vision for the future. However, it is important to remember that this is not the only historical narrative. These vast and beautiful plains were home to many Native American tribes long before the notion of the American West was born.

As Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman, a political activist, musician, and member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, once said:

There is an ancient Indian saying that something lives only as long as the last person who remembers it. My people have come to trust memory over history. Memory, like fire, is radiant and immutable while history serves only those who seek to control it, those who douse the flame of memory in order to put out the dangerous fire of truth. Beware these men for they are dangerous themselves and unwise. Their false history is written in the blood of those who might remember and of those who seek the truth.

Dakota Datebook by Maria Witham


Jamestown Weekly Alert, July 24, 1890, p.3

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