The Reservation System

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Map of Country Comprising the Sioux Indian Reservations in North and South Dakota (Frazier Augustus Boutelle Papers).

The land mass of Dakota territory in Minnesota has been reduced over the past two hundred years from nearly two-thirds of the state to four tiny reservations at Shakopee and Prairie Island in the southeast, and Lower and Upper Sioux in the southwest. The overwhelming majority of Dakota were forced into South Dakota and Nebraska after 1862.

Native Americans all over the United States were intentionally put on the least arable patches of land and forced to accept government handouts after it was clear to them they could no longer continue their traditional hunting and gathering lifeways. Partially in retribution for refusing the yoke of colonialism and partly as a means of forcing assimilation of Native peoples into the American mainstream, the reservation system has led to enormous disparities in wealth and health between Native and Euro-Americans that are reflected in incarceration rates, suicide rates, longevity, and rates of employment to this day.

The Federal government recognized that, in their attempt to destroy traditional Native lifeways in order to assimilate Native people into the American mainstream via the reservation system, there was going to be a period of years of transition when the people on those reservations were dependent upon the government for food. This dependence resulted in the annuity goods distribution by Indian agents to families on reservations.

In this 1889 photograph, Grand Portage Ojibwe Indian Agent M.A. Leahy looks on while sacks of flour are distributed to Native families. The annuity payments, ostensibly given in return for the value of the Indian lands seized by the government, were frequently rotten, too few, and late.