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Demographics

Land Base

The Chippewas reside on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. The Turtle Mountains are near the geographic center of North America. Located southeast of the International Peace Gardens, the northern boundary of the reservation runs perpendicular to the Canadian Border, along the 49th parallel. The land base of the Reservation is entirely within Rolette County, measuring 12 miles (from west to east) by 6 miles (from north to south).

The Turtle Mountain Reservation boundaries, as agreed upon in the McCumber Agreement, or Ten Cent Treaty, consist of two townships. When allotments were issued by the federal government to individual tribal members, the land approved by Congress was insufficient to meet the allotment needs of the Turtle Mountain Band. As a result, Congress authorized the members of the Turtle Mountain Band to be issued allotments at Grahams Island, Trenton, North Dakota and at other locations in the Dakotas. Today, the land holdings of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and individual tribal members is 72,255 acres of land on and immediately adjacent to the reservation in Rolette County. The Tribe and its members hold 6,698 acres in trust at Trenton and there are individual allotments at other locations throughout North Dakota and other states. A large portion of the land base is in trust status consisting of tribal trust lands and individual trust lands (public domain allotments). The rest is land which is in unrestricted fee status and is mostly owned by individual tribal members. Most of the individual land allotments are fractionated because of heirship (e.g., many tribal members die without providing a will, perhaps because of the traditional belief that lands should be held in common). Another possibility is that the land has become so divided, any attempt to provide a will would be futile. This division of land makes economic development very difficult.

Alloted Land
104,005 acres
Tribal Land
35,579 acres
Other
523 acres
Total Acreage
140,107 acres
Trenton Area Tribal and Trust Land
6,698 acres

Topography and Climate

One million years ago during the Cenozoic Era, North Dakota was covered by glaciers. These glaciers shaped the topography of the Turtle Mountains. The receding glaciers created an elevated terrain of rolling “turtle back” hills and scooped-out lakes, resulting in an area of scenic beauty unequaled in the state or region. The Turtle Mountain Reservation is in the Manitoba Escarpment. The hills of the Turtle Mountains range from 200 to 600 feet above the surrounding plains and from 1700 feet to 2300 feet above sea level. The last ice age sculpted the northern half of the Turtle Mountains with hills of sand and gravel. Trapped under these glacier deposits of sand and gravel are underground seas called aquifers. These bodies of water under the earth’s surface were developed during this era. The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewas has a legend about the glacier. See the “Legend of How the Chippewa Got the Four Seasons: Nanabosho and the Winter Giant” in the Appendix.

The reservation is in an area of a temperate climate. The weather varies from severe winters to moderate summers. In the winter, the temperature averages from 0 to 2 degrees F. The winter days average about nine hours of sunlight, while summer daylight stretches to 18 hours. Most of the rain occurs during the growing season which is anywhere from 90 to 116 days.

Natural Resources

The habitat of the Turtle “Mountain” hills is filled with small deciduous trees such as birch, oak, elm, poplar, aspen, willow, and cottonwood. The Manitoba Escarpment formed innate woodland lakes, which can be found on the average of one per square mile throughout the reservation. These lakes supply fishing of northern pike, walleye, and perch. The northern half of the reservation has excellent habitat for wildlife. The southern portion of the reservation consists of rolling plains, which is suitable for farming.

The flora of the Turtle Mountains consists of several varieties of plants which attract numerous forms of wildlife (deer, moose, wolves, fox, beavers, rabbit, and others). There are various types of waterfowl such as Canadian geese, ducks, and pelicans. Birds such as eagles, hawks, crows, robins, bluebirds, and wrens return year after year to take up residence. Covering the landscape is the tiger lily, ladiesslipper, dog rose, and sage. The wooded region of the Turtle Mountains is home to wild berries such as strawberries, cranberries, choke cherries, a type of hazelnut called a “puk’ on,” a flat prune-like berry which the Chippewa called a “black hawk,” and June berries. The natural resources of animals, plants, and forests have provided food, medicine, water, and shelter for its inhabitants.

Population and Labor Force

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2010 population of the Turtle Mountain Reservation was 8,656. This was a 4 percent increase over the 2000 population of 8,307.  Rolette County had a 2010 population of 13,937.

The people of the Turtle Mountains are their own greatest resource. The Turtle Mountain Reservation has approximately 31,000 enrolled members. There are approximately 14,500 tribal members living on or near the reservation.

The Turtle Mountain Reservation has a labor force of 5,222 tribal members and that 2,474 of these were not in the labor force or unemployed. According to the U.S. Census, 71.5 percent of reservation’s adult residents had completed high school while 11.7 percent had completed four or more years of college. The Turtle Mountain Reservation has a relatively well-educated population.

The labor force has different and diversified employment skills, training and experience. These trades include: truck driver, carpenter, welder, farmer, farm or ranch hand, nurse or aide, construction worker, restaurant or retail business employee, bookkeeper or accountant, and a number of other skills. The labor force has accumulated many skills for various economic activities. There are ever increasing numbers of tribal members who are classified as professionals and who have earned 2-year degrees, bachelors degrees, masters degrees, and PhDs. There are at least 350 tribal members who have earned bachelors degrees living on the reservation.

The Turtle Mountain Tribal labor force has a rich work ethic and is motivated to work for the private as well as the public sector.

Education

The Turtle Mountain Community School system in Belcourt consists of a multi-million-dollar high school completed in 1985 that operates under a local school board of tribal members. The system supports a middle school, constructed in 1989, and a new modern elementary school. In 1974, the Tribe assumed control of the former Catholic mission school of St. Ann’s. The new facility, named Ojibwa School, currently operates as a tribal contract school serving grades K–8. A Head Start program, in existence for more than twenty years, is operated by the tribal government. While some of the facilities are relatively new, all reservation schools have inadequate space to serve the ever-increasing enrollments. A small number of students attend boarding schools.

Turtle Mountain Indian School Enrollments

Data from North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, 2008-2009
Turtle Mountain Reservation Schools
High School 611
Middle School 222
Elementary School 792
Ojibwa School 268
Dunseith Day School 169
Total 2,062
Data from North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, 2008-2009
Public School Indian Enrollment
Rolla 88
Rolette 41
St. Johns 267
Dunseith 381
Total 777
Data from the Turtle Mountain Community College
Turtle Mountain Community College
Full-time Students 560
Pre-College Adults 250
Total 810

Turtle Mountain Community College

The Turtle Mountain Community College (TMCC) was established by the tribal government through the resolution process in November 1972. The college has as its mission to provide post secondary training to tribal members. In the process the college seeks to preserve and promote the culture and heritage of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa by bringing the culture to bear throughout the curriculum and providing community service to the reservation. There are 650 full-time equivalent students each year in the college’s post-secondary programs, and about 250 pre-college adults.

In 1999, TMCC moved to a new campus and a new facility. The new facility is located about two miles north of Belcourt. Trees and vegetation surround the new site that overlooks Belcourt Lake. The new TMCC main campus includes a 105,000 square foot building located on an approximately 123 acre site. The new facility includes state of the art technology, a fiscal area, general classrooms, science, mathematics and engineering classrooms and labs, library and archives, learning resource centers, faculty area, student services area, gymnasium and mechanical systems. A new auditorium with seating capacity for 1000 opened in 2003.

The former main campus in Belcourt has twelve buildings that provide 66,000 square feet of space. Both campuses are being used for college or community use. The two campuses house all college functions with the exception of some off-campus community responsive training programs.

Economy

Major business sectors which employ tribal members in the Turtle Mountain Reservation area include the government: federal, state, local agencies, and the schools, have a labor force of approximately 854; Turtle Mountain Manufacturing Company, a 100 percent tribally-owned and operated utility trailer manufacturing plant employs 186 people; Uniband, a tribally-owned data entry firm employs 850 nationwide and has 350 employees at the Belcourt site; Indian Health Service has 215 staff members; Turtle Mountain Community College employs 60 people; and Turtle Mountain Chippewa Casino employees 300 people. Figures show there are 135 Indian-owned businesses existing on and immediately off the reservation that employ many tribal members.

Tribal members have found employment in communities surrounding the reservation. For example, the Turtle Mountain Corporation, in Dunseith, employs 130 people who are mostly tribal members. In addition, private businesses, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and other agencies and industries near the reservation employ approximately 800 tribal members.

For combating unemployment, the tribe established the Turtle Mountain Community College in 1972 to provide postsecondary opportunities to tribal members. Turtle Mountain Community College is directly involved with training of the labor force for industry and agencies located on and adjacent to the reservation. Industries are encouraged to locate in the area and have found the Turtle Mountain Reservation’s labor force to be abundant and free from various forms of state taxation. This is an added benefit for locating on the reservation. The Indian Tribal Tax Status Act has afforded the tribe a much needed competitive and economic boost. The stability and reliability of the Turtle Mountain Reservation labor force are critical to the tribe’s economic stability. The stability of the tribal economy is illustrated by the low absenteeism and low staff turnover rates, as reported by major employers.

The Turtle Mountain Tribe also conducts employment and training activities through the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) Program, which is funded by the Department of Labor. The JTPA program is custom-designed each year to fit the employment and on-the-job training needs of the Tribe.

Infrastructure and Services

Belcourt, an unincorporated community, is the only town on the reservation. The Tribal offices for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa are located approximately four miles west of the community on Highway 2. Belcourt is the largest Indian community in the state, with a population of about 2,400 residents. Rolette County has a population of 13,674 residents.

Transportation

The Turtle Mountain Reservation has excellent highway accessibility. Belcourt is bisected by U.S. Highway 281, a major north-south route that passes east-west through the reservation, connecting with Trans-Canada Highway 10, U.S. Highway 2, and state Highway 3. While the tribal roads and other county roads make it possible to reach all areas of the reservation, roads on the reservation remain mostly unpaved and in poor driving condition.

Trucking, air, and rail freight services are available at Rolla and other nearby towns. The Rolla airport has a 3,300 foot blacktop runway and a 2,600 foot sod runway which provide air taxi services. The United States Postal Service (USPS), Federal Express, and United Parcel Services (UPS) include the reservation in their delivery area. Regular commercial air and Amtrak passenger services are available at Devils Lake, Minot, and Rugby, all within a 45 to 105 mile area. Taxi and limousine services are available on the reservation.

Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation
Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. (Map by Cassie Theurer, adapted from Kimberly Eslinger)

Business Services

The Belcourt community provides a variety of services to its members and the surrounding area. Many tribal members own the service businesses on the reservation. The community has automobile repair shops, convenience stores, grocery stores, lumber yards, construction companies, restaurants, and cleaning service companies. The community also has a print shop, a business form distributor, laundromat, cable television, and a garbage collection company. Tourists and shoppers enjoy tax free shopping on the reservation. Community members encourage and support one another by investing in local business ventures.

The Turtle Mountain tribal government and the federal government provide some utility services to the surrounding communities. The tribal public utility department provides and maintains a rural water system for people who reside on or near the reservation. Non-reservation telephone services and utilities are available as are three electric companies, several gas, fuel oil, and propane suppliers. The reservation also has an Indian Health Services center and a local agency office for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Both are located in the Belcourt community. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the North Dakota State Highway Department provide road maintenance and repair of all local roadways.

Indian Health Service

Health services began on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in 1906. Doctors were contracted through the Bureau of Indian Affairs to visit the reservation twice weekly. In 1955, the operation of the health facility transferred from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the United States Public Health Service. In 1968, a modern fifty-two bed facility was built. This facility served the reservation for 25 years. Unable to keep pace with a fast growing population and its health care needs, a large, more technologically sophisticated, facility was completed in the spring of 1994. Many of the staff physicians, nurses, pharmacists, administrators, secretaries, laboratory technicians, and other health professionals are enrolled tribal members.

Turtle Mountain Housing Authority

The Turtle Mountain Housing Authority was chartered by the Tribe in 1962. This agency is governed by a local board of directors appointed to work with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Turtle Mountain Housing Authority has built numerous low-income rental units, 1,300 individually-owned homes, and a retirement center which include 80 one-bedroom units. While housing conditions have greatly improved in the last forty years, there are still an estimated 400 families without homes or are living in substandard conditions on the reservation.

Turtle Mountain Chippewa Historical Society

A vision of preserving and promoting the culture and heritage of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa was the mission of the founders of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Historical Society (TMCHS). Through the commitment of dedicated individuals, the organization was formed in 1981. After many years of planning and fund raising, their dream of preserving the heritage of the people was realized with the completion of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Heritage Center which opened in July of 1987. Visitors from all over the world have logged their signatures into the Heritage Center’s guest book.

The TMCHS has displays depicting the past of the Chippewa lifeways. Contemporary area artisans have established themselves as world renowned artists, producing and exhibiting sculptures, paintings, quilts, willow baskets, and birch bark containers. Visitors may purchase beadwork, jewelry, tapes, and albums of local area artists. The Center also serves as an archive of tribal history and cultural resources. The overwhelming response to the heritage center has prompted a revival of Chippewa art. There is a need for a larger facility, not only for sales purposes, but for displays, dioramas, gallery showings, and visiting exhibits.

Anishinaubag

“ANISHINAUBAG” is an Intercultural Center located along the southern shoreline of Belcourt Lake. The Center shares the facility with St. Paul’s Indian Ministries Foundation, sponsored by the Lutheran Church. The Center theme is to preserve the cultural heritage of the North Dakota tribes, including the Anishinabe and to eliminate the barriers of misunderstanding by sharing cultures. The surrounding environment offers visitors activities such as fishing, swimming, canoeing, and hiking. Cabins are available for rent as are individual or group tours. The Center holds several summer camps for children of various ages. Hiking trails provide sites of wigwams, earth lodges, tipis, and sweat lodges.

Turtle Mountain Motor Vehicle Department

To support and build the Tribe’s infrastructure, the Turtle Mountain government formed a corporation to produce their own license plates. The Turtle Mountain Motor Vehicle Department began operation in1989. Through agreement with the state, enrolled reservation members have a choice of purchasing tribal or state license plates. In January of 1993, 4,386 residents registered vehicles with the Turtle Mountain Motor Vehicle Department. The Turtle Mountain Motor Vehicle Department also provides licenses for boats, trailers, and other recreational vehicles.

KEYA Radio Station

KEYA is a public, nonprofit radio station, which was chartered and began operation in October of 1975. KEYA derives its name from a Cree word meaning “you.” The station was originally licensed under the Belcourt School Board, but currently operates under a Board of Directors consisting of tribal members and business leaders. The station has a full-time staff and numerous volunteers, and exists with donations derived from annual pledge drives, business underwriting and grants. Funding has come from such organizations as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the North Dakota Humanities Council, and the Tribal Council. It has the distinction of being the third oldest Indian operated radio station in the nation.

St. Ann’s Mission

In 1885, St. Ann’s Catholic Mission was started at Belcourt. Its purpose was to serve the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. The present church was constructed in 1935. It is the largest Indian parish in the diocese of Fargo, North Dakota.

Business Enterprises

The Turtle Mountain Chippewa are successful entrepreneurs. Rolette County has 135 privately-owned and operated Indian businesses. These businesses range from grocery stores, gas stations, and convenience stores to construction, electrical, plumbing, and cable television companies. Many tribal members are self-employed as artisans. A mall, centrally located in the community consists of a grocery store, floral shop, branch bank, post office, barber shop, hair salon, restaurant and variety store. Adjacent to the mall is an 8-lane bowling alley, lounge, casino, and restaurant.

Tribal Industrial Services

In the late 1950s, a 40-acre industrial park was established three miles west of Belcourt on U.S. 281. Since that time, the park has had steady activity and a proven track record of quality work. Two tribal industries, Uniband and Turtle Mountain Manufacturing Company, are located in the park. There is a large, available, trained labor force from which the employer can pick and choose; good transportation routes; ample utilities; and tax advantages available to prospective employers.

Turtle Mountain Manufacturing Company

Turtle Mountain Manufacturing Company (TMMC) has been in business since 1979. TMMC is 100 percent tribally-owned and operated and one of the reservation’s largest employers. The Company employs between 100 and 160 people full-time and grosses millions of dollars annually. The firm manufactures cargo trailers, truck boxes, and farm machinery. The Company has a production and storage area of 160,000 square feet.

In March of 1989, TMMC ended participation in the Department of Commerce’ s Small Business Administration program, a program which provides eligible minority firms with noncompetitive access to selected federal contracts. Since that time, the company has diversified into light steel fabrication.

Uniband

Founded in 1987, Uniband is a 100 percent tribally-owned data preparation and information processing business. Uniband combined the names of the Unibase Corporation and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Initially incorporated as a joint-partnership with Unibase, of Salt Lake City, Utah, the Tribe bought out Unibase’s 49 percent interest and is now sole owner.

The company employs approximately 900 people, a number which has steadily grown since the business began. As a successful business of the Tribe, Uniband, in 1995, moved into a new facility constructed in the Industrial Park. The business does on-site data processing, but it has expanded to satellite work sites which include the immediate communities of Belcourt, Rolette, Leeds, White Shield, Bismarck, and Minot. Other sites include Washington, D.C., San Diego, California, Chicago, Miami, Norfolk, Tucson, Rockville, and Albuquerque. In 1996, when Uniband expanded to the community of White Shield, on the Fort Berthold Reservation, the tribes hailed this historic venture as the beginning of an effort to help one another develop economic opportunities.

Sky Dancer Casino

In accordance with the National Indian Gaming and Regulatory Act of 1988, the Turtle Mountain Band entered into an agreement with the State of North Dakota to conduct class three gaming. It was the first North Dakota tribe to enter into such a gaming compact. Sky Dancer Casino offers the latest in gaming technology, with over 500 of the latest in slot machines along with various gaming tables. Sky Dancer Casino was originally opened in 1993 and has gone through many changes. It was originally called the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Casino until it was later renamed the Wild Rose Casino. Feeling the name lacked tribal affiliation, it was later changed back to Turtle Mountain Chippewa Casino. Finally, in 2000, after the construction of a new facility it was again renamed to reflect the present-day Sky Dancer Hotel and Casino.

The Sky Dancer Hotel is located just minutes from the Canada/United States border in the heart of the Turtle Mountains, and visitors are treated to a vast array of culture and natural scenery. The full-service hotel offers 97 guest rooms, along with a swimming pool, two hot tubs, and private saunas.

Chippewa Downs

Situated behind the Tribal Industrial Park is the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Downs. Built in the mid-1970s, Turtle Mountain Downs has space for rodeos and horse racing. Each summer the Downs offers parimutuel betting at the race track.

Tribal Artisans

The tribally-funded Turtle Mountain Artists Board was established to promote and publicize the abundant area talent of singers, song writers, musicians, and visual and performing artists. The Tribe funds the Traditional Culture and Pow Wow Committee. The Little Shell Memorial Pow Wow is held in Dunseith, North Dakota during the month of July. The annual Turtle Mountain Powwow is held during the Labor Day weekend drawing participants from the United States and Canada.

Turtle Mountain Times

In 1993, the Turtle Mountain Times, a tribally-owned weekly newspaper, began operation. Most of the staff are tribal members.