FARGO — The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa once lived on the eastern shores of North America along the Great Salt Lake, aka, the Atlantic Ocean.

They eventually migrated westward to Gitche Gumee, or Lake Superior, and for the past 127 years, they have resided on a 6-by-12 mile reservation in north central North Dakota, just 15 miles away from the Canadian border.

Lakes dot the reservation landscape, and grasslands and boreal forest break up the flat prairie and farmland in much of the state. And each summer, spectators come to Turtle Mountain to watch the horse races at Chippewa Downs.

“This is a beautiful culture here,” Turtle Mountain elder Dan Jerome said in an interview with the Department of Public Instruction.

The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa are primarily members of the Pembina Band of Chippewa. The word “Chippewa” was invented after Europoean contact, and it is an English mispronunciation of the word “Ojibway.” The Ojibway people refer to themselves as the “Anishinabe,” meaning “the original people” and referring to their belief that they have always lived in North America.

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The Ojibway lived on the East Coast around 900 A.D. Around the beginning of the 17th century, they moved westward to Lake Superior, and eventually established their aboriginal territory in the woodlands of Canada, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and later North Dakota and Montana.

Tribes on the north of the lake were the Ojibway and Cree, and those on the south of the lake were the “Chippewa.” The tribes all played a central role in the fur trade, helping it flourish in the Great Lakes region with the French and English during the first half of the 17th century.

The Chippewa continued to migrate farther west into present-day northern Minnesota and occupied the territory from Red Lake, Leech Lake, Sandy Lake, Lake of the Woods, Rainy Lake, to Lake Superior and Lake Winnipeg Traverse.

Though the regions around these lakes became their more permanent settlements, the men canoed the Red and Assiniboine rivers and other tributaries during the hunting and trapping season, assisting in the growth of the fur trade and westward movement. Though the Red River provided food and furs for the Chippewa, it also brought them into conflict with the Dakota, who held claims to the land along the Red River.

By the end of the 18th century, the Red River region was virtually depleted of wild game and furred animals, and many Ojibway bands returned to their woodland homes. But the Pembina Band continued westward, establishing themselves in the Turtle Mountains, which was abundant in wild game, water resources and medicinal plants.

They officially became “Plains Indians,” establishing themselves in a large area called the “Pembina Territory,” which stretched north to south from the U.S.-Canadian border to the headwaters of the Mississippi River and more than 500 miles of plains east to west, according to Father Belcourt, a resident Canadian priest for the tribe.

The flag of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Special to The Forum
The flag of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Special to The Forum

The Chippewa territory was first defined by the 1858 Sweet Corn Treaty with the Dakota, which determined it began in northwestern Minnesota, included much of the Red River Valley north of present-day Fargo, and continued west to the Missouri River.

Just five years later, the Chippewa signed the Old Crossing Treaty — under protest — giving 11 million acres of land in the Red River Valley to the U.S., so the government could open the agricultural area to white settlers. The land was acquired at eight cents per acre.

In the highly protested 1892 McCumber Agreement, the U.S. took 10 million more acres of land from the Chippewa.

Chief Little Shell III and his council wanted a larger land base and much more than 10 cents per acre, saying other tribes received anywhere from 50 cents to $2.50 per acre and non-Indian lands were valued even higher. Because he refused to sign the agreement, the U.S. government did not recognize him and his council of 24 as leaders of the band. Instead, the U.S. handpicked 32 other Chippewa to negotiate with, and they signed the agreement, known as the "Ten Cent Treaty."

The McCumber agreement left the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa a 6-by-12 mile reservation located in Rolette County, North Dakota. Later, the tribe acquired trust lands in other areas in the Dakotas and Montana. According to the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, the tribe now has about 31,000 enrolled members, about 10,000 of whom live on the reservation.

Left without a land base, Little Shell and many of his followers moved to Montana. And now, more than a century later, they're seeking federal recognition as a tribe.

“People have to know where they come from in order to know where they’re going,” Turtle Mountain elder Dan Jerome said.