Documenting the Dakota: Introductory Essay

The History of the Wahpeton Reserve, Prince Albert, in the Provincial Archives' Collection

There are a number of Dakota (Sioux) communities located in the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba that have a unique status and relationship with the Canadian government and the British Crown. 

In the mid-nineteenth century, a number of Dakota bands migrated northwest from Minnesota into the territories that later became Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where they established several reserve communities. This migration from their southern homeland was prompted by armed conflicts between the Dakota people and the American government, particularly the Dakota War of 1862. 

British officials allowed these Dakota bands to enter the northwest because of their past relationship with the British government.  The Dakota people had allied with the British in the American Revolutionary War of 1776 and in the War of 1812. Upon their arrival in British territory between late 1862 and 1870, the Dakota people pointed to their possession of “King George medals,” which were presented to the Dakota by the British in recognition of these alliances, as the basis of their request to enter and remain in the British territories. 

Although British officials allowed the Dakota to cross the border and remain in British territories, they did not enter into treaties with the Dakota because the Government considered them to be American and therefore refugees.  The Dakota, however, believed that they were simply renewing their relationship with the British.  These migrant Dakota bands posed some unique problems to the Canadian government’s administration of First Nations throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; although they were considered to be American, they were also treated as non-treaty peoples under the jurisdiction of the Indian Act

Although they are referred to as the Sioux in most historical documents and in many contemporary sources, the name used by this group is the Dakota, which means “allies” or “friend”.  The term Sioux comes from an Algonquian phrase meaning “snakes” or “enemies” and this is not the name that the Dakota prefer for themselves. 

The Dakota Nation is a large and diverse cultural group, and the main contemporary divisions within this group are based on the linguistic divisions of the language into the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota dialects.  The Dakota Nation was historically referred to as the Seven Council Fires or Oceti Sakowin, which represents the historical alliance between the seven closely related nations of the Dakota/Lakota/Nakota which are:

Mdewakantonwan – Nation by the Sacred Lake;

Sinsintonwan – Nation of the Marshland;

Wahpetonwan – Nation Among the Leaves;

Wahpekute – Nation of Shooters Among the Leaves;

Ihanktonwan - Nation at the End of Horn;

Ihanktowana - Nation at the Little End of Horn; and

Tintatonwan – Nation of the Plains. 

The Tintatonwan, or the Teton, are also known as the Lakota, and their territories are the western-most area of the Dakota Nation, in the Great Plains region.  The Teton, or Lakota, are also further divided into seven related bands.

In Saskatchewan, there are three Dakota reserves: the Wahpeton reserve near Prince Albert, the Whitecap reserve near Saskatoon, and the Standing Buffalo reserve near Fort Qu’Appelle.  There is also one Lakota reserve in Saskatchewan located at Wood Mountain, which was established by followers of Lakota chief, Sitting Bull, who crossed the border in order to avoid American authorities who were seeking to punish them for their involvement in the Battle of Little Big Horn in Montana in 1876.  Sitting Bull eventually returned to the United States in 1881; however many of his followers stayed behind at Wood Mountain and established the reserve community that still exists today.

The differences between the various Dakota bands and the Lakota band at Wood Mountain were a source of confusion for government officials and Euro-Canadian settlers, who often assumed that all of these “Sioux” were involved in both the Dakota War of 1862 in Minnesota and in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  Although some of the Dakota and Lakota people who crossed the border were involved in armed conflicts with the American army, not all of them took an active role in these events.  However, the Euro-Canadian settlers treated the Dakota with caution, because there was a widespread belief that the “Sioux” were a war-like and savage people, and even though they had not caused any trouble in their new communities the settlers were afraid that the Dakota could easily slip back into their supposedly violent ways.  These fears reached a fever pitch during the events of the 1885 Resistance; however, most of the Dakota people stayed out of that conflict.

Despite Euro-Canadian trepidation, the people from the Wahpeton reserve have benefited from a close connection to settlers in Prince Albert since the Dakota first established their own small community near the growing settlement in the 1870s.   The Dakota people from the Wahpeton reserve were regularly employed in the thriving Prince Albert lumber industry, as well as in a number of other labour jobs for the settlers, and they were well known to the residents of Prince Albert.  Today this reserve is known as the Wahpeton Reserve 94A, but it was also referred to as the Round Plain reserve.  The Wahpeton reserve was officially recognized as a reserve in 1894, partly due to the efforts of Presbyterian missionary teacher Lucy Margaret Baker.

The establishment of Dakota communities in Saskatchewan is well documented in several of the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan’s collections.  The history of the Wahpeton reserve is particularly well documented in several fonds held by the Archives.  Two of the richest sources are the Lucy Margaret Baker fonds (F375), and the Robert Goodvoice oral history project “An Oral History of the Wahpaton [sic] Dakota” (R-A1344 to R-A1347, and R-5761 to R-5763).  The following virtual exhibit highlights many of the interesting archival documents from these and other Archives' collections which relate to the history of the Dakota at Wahpeton Reserve.

To view the exhibit, click here.