The Untold History of Indigenous People in Fargo-Moorhead
We spoke with historian and Programming Director Markus Krueger to fill us in on their recent history exhibition, Ihdago Manipi. The exhibit explores the dramatic transformation that occurred in the early years of Clay County, Minnesota, including the arrival of railroads and immigrant families, the dispossession and history of indigenous people, an ecological revolution, and the construction of modern American life.
Located in Downtown Moorhead, the Hjemkomst Center houses the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. The society’s mission is to collect, preserve, interpret, and share the History and culture of Clay County, Minnesota.
Fargo-Moorhead’s Native American History in a nutshell
The place where we live – the central Red River Valley – is one of the most fascinating places in America for Native American history. Still, strangely, it is a very little-known history. This was the border between two gigantic and very different cultures – the Dakota (also known as the Sioux) and the Ojibwe (also known as the Chippewa) – and the birthplace of a third fascinating indigenous culture – the Métis (also known as the Michif). Specifically, this area was home to the Sisseton, Wahpeton, Yanktonai Dakota, and the Red Lake, Pillager, and Pembina Ojibwe, with the Michif Red River Trails crisscrossing their way between the cities we now call Winnipeg and Saint Paul.
People have lived here for thousands of years since Glacial Lake Agassiz disappeared. For most of this time, we don’t know what the ancient people of the Red River Valley called themselves, but we know the place we now call the Fargo-Moorhead Metro Area has always been a transportation hub. Before the airports and interstates and transcontinental railroads crossed here, the main roads were rivers, and this is where the main north-south road – the Red River – met the region’s main east-west roads – the Buffalo River coming in from the east, and the Wild Rice and Sheyenne Rivers coming from the west.
By the early 1800s, the Indigenous North American trade networks were connected with the Atlantic Ocean trade networks of the French and British Empires to create a global fur trade network. The Dakota and Ojibwe nations were vast parts of this system that brought North American furs to Europe and European manufactured goods here.
A new Indigenous culture of the Red River Valley was created when local Ojibwe, Cree, and Assiniboine women married French or British fur traders. Their children were the Métis (pronounced may-TEE, meaning “the mixed”), and their language, clothing styles, lifestyle, and customs mixed those of their parents into something new and uniquely their own.
In 1825, regional Indigenous leaders met at Prairie du Chien (modern-day Wisconsin) to delineate borders to divide Fur Trade hunting and trapping lands. It was agreed that Ojibwe country would begin north of the Sheyenne and Buffalo Rivers, and Dakota lands would begin on the south bank. It was a very fluid border, often crossed by hunters, warriors, friends, relatives, and young lovers. Both the Dakota and Ojibwe people of this area lived seasonally in various places for planting, hunting, fishing, and hunkering down for long winters. The Métis, whose language skills and cultural knowledge gave them a foot in the European world and the cultures of the Northern Plains, often served as translators in the fur trade and hunters and traders. The Métis developed the Red River Cart, made entirely of wood and each capable of carrying 1000 pounds. Trains of hundreds or even thousands of Red River Carts moved furs and pemmican (a crucial non-perishable food, like beef jerky made of buffalo) to St. Paul, where they would exchange their cargo for manufactured goods to take home to the Red River Valley. The Red River Cart traffic between Winnipeg and St. Paul created a network of Red River Trails, the original roads that, in many ways, evolved into the modern-day highway system of Manitoba, North Dakota, and Minnesota.
The shift from furs to land
By the 1850s, the Fur Trade economy collapsed just as the United States of America sought to expand into the Red River Valley. The USA wanted land, not furs. Dakota and Ojibwe leaders, faced with economic pressure and the threat of overwhelming military force, negotiated the best deals they could, trying to hold on to their most important places and securing promises that the USA would support their people in the future. The US-Dakota War of 1862, perhaps the most significant and tragic event in our region’s history, occurred because the USA did not keep these promises. This area was opened to US settlement by treaties with Dakota and Ojibwe people in 1851, 1855, 1863, and 1872. The Indigenous people of the central Red River Valley saw their homelands significantly reduced to small American reservations and Canadian reserves surrounded by Euro-American settlements and farms.
Dakota families from the Spirit Lake Tribe and the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate would have lived in the Fargo-Moorhead area in the 1850s, as would families from some reservations in western North Dakota, Montana, and Saskatchewan. Ojibwe families from Red Lake Nation, White Earth Nation, Leech Lake Band, Turtle Mountain Band, and the newly recognized Little Shell Chippewa Tribe in Montana would have ancestral roots here. Although the Métis are recognized as one of Canada’s First Nations, they were never legally recognized by the USA. Thus, they were not fairly compensated for losing their homelands in the treaties. Some chose to blend into Euro-American communities, while others joined their Pembina Ojibwe relatives at Turtle Mountain.
Life after the 1800s treaties
Historically, economic and educational opportunities were often unavailable to reservation families. In the treaties of the 1800s, Indigenous leaders had to trade away access to all but tiny portions of their homelands. State and national governments devised further methods of taking more land and resources from the reservations without fairly compensating the people living there. The USA had an official policy of forcing Native Americans to assimilate into white culture. A large part of this assimilation process was sending Indigenous children to boarding schools, where they often experienced horrific living conditions and were punished for speaking their language.
Still, some individuals kept their culture, continued to speak their language, and practiced religious ceremonies that were against the law until congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978. The Dakota and Ojibwe people were resilient through generations of cultural suppression. Although more than a century of harmful policies have had lasting effects on Indigenous communities and individual lives, both Ojibwe and Dakota communities are experiencing cultural resurgences, including language revitalization programs that draw national attention and exciting examples of visual arts, traditional dance, and food.
In the mid-1900s, Ojibwe and Dakota families and individuals started moving back to the Fargo-Moorhead area. They returned for the same reasons that many rural Minnesotans and North Dakotans moved into the city – for jobs and to go to college. The Fargo-Moorhead Metro Area has a large and very diverse Native American population that includes not only Ojibwe, Dakota, and Michif residents but folks from Indigenous nations all across the US and Canada.
As the county’s historical society, we knew we had to do an extensive exhibit to mark the 150th anniversary of the railroad coming to Clay County, founding many of the towns we live in, bringing in immigrant farming families, and leading to the establishment of our local governments. But we also wanted to include Indigenous perspectives that have been, up to this point, absent from our local founding story. So we assembled a team of Dakota, Ojibwe, and Métis advisors to guide our research and writing for the exhibit.
The Indigenous history of the Red River Valley, especially this section, is usually overlooked even though it is fascinating as the borderland between many different peoples. It is hard enough to tell Native American history in an Ojibwe country like Duluth or Dakota country like Sisseton. Still, here, we were the shared border between very different cultures of people whose homelands stretched across the North Woods and Northern Plains. So for three years, with the help of our advisors, we studied Dakota, Ojibwe, and Michif history spanning what is now Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Montana, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.
Our advisor, Dakota elder and language professor Glenn Wasicuna gave us the title: “they leave marks as they come through here.” The railroad left marks, and everyone who lived here left marks that we are trying to uncover, and we leave marks today. The result was an exhibit that still tells the traditional founding story of railroads, Scandinavian immigrant trunks, the Homestead Act, and Clay County’s government being founded in a Wild West saloon gunfight. Still, it also tells Indigenous perspectives that our community has never discussed. What treaties allowed us to live here? Why were the treaties signed? What families lived here in 1850, and where are their descendants living today? We have gotten many positive responses to it because people have never heard this stuff before. The exhibit has won awards from the Minnesota Alliance of Local History Museums and a national award from the American Association for State and Local History.
Ihdago Manipi contains stories of resilience, determination, adaptation, and agency. It also includes descriptions of hardships, indignities, and terms that reflect historically racist perspectives and language from past eras. In this exhibit, we strive to speak the truth about the violence and suffering in the lives of Native peoples in North America. The Fargo-Moorhead community needs to understand our area’s history as we continue to grow and include all.