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Workers of the Civilian Conservation Corps-Indian Division helped build infrastructure on and off of reservations

Beginning in 1933, Ojibwe and Dakota work crews in Minnesota signed on with the CCC-ID to provide income for themselves and their families.

historical photo of workers lined up by a road
Civilian Conservation Corps-Indian Division (CCC-ID) workers from the Nett Lake Reservation (one of the reservations of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa), July 30, 1941.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Between 1933 and 1943, Native Americans worked on their lands as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps-Indian Division, run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). More than 2,000 Native families in Minnesota benefited from the wages as participants developed work skills and communities gained infrastructure like roads and wells.

The federal public work program known as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) formed in 1933 in response to the soaring unemployment rates of the Great Depression. Native American communities faced deeper poverty and hardship than many others, prompting the BIA to create a CCC division that could bring jobs and skills training to reservations. First called the Indian Emergency Conservation Work program (IECW), it was eventually renamed the Civilian Conservation Corps-Indian Division (CCC-ID).

Beginning in 1933, Ojibwe and Dakota work crews in Minnesota signed on with the CCC-ID to provide income for themselves and their families. The BIA ran the program and allotted federal funding for the CCC-ID for about nine years. The Consolidated Chippewa Agency (serving White Earth, Nett Lake, Grand Portage, Fond du Lac, Mille Lacs, Leech Lake) and the Red Lake Agency both registered Ojibwe people in the program with the help of Ojibwe social worker and CCC-ID employee Isabella Robideau. The Minnesota Sioux Agency registered Dakota men from Eggleston, Prairie Island, Shakopee, Granite Falls, Morton, Pipestone, and Prior Lake.

Men seventeen years and older as well as some women worked on CCC-ID projects that mattered to their communities, both on and off reservations. They experienced fewer military-style regulations in their work lives than those in the rest of the CCC, and some Ojibwe workers spoke Anishinaabemowin in addition to English. Men held positions as camp managers, assistant foremen, draftsmen, transit operators, mechanics, machine operators, blacksmiths, and laborers. They sometimes worked through the winter and in bad weather.

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The CCC-ID offered classes on topics like fighting forest fires and using building tools. In July 1935, the Consolidated Chippewa agency offered classes in forestry, bookkeeping, art, English, and history. Nett Lake’s offerings included science, mechanics, chorus, art, English, drama, shorthand, and tap dancing.

Consolidated Chippewa crews cleared pathways like the Blacklock Trail—described as “mostly uphill”—for the transportation of fire personnel and horses. They strung telephone wire, built fire look-out towers, and even fought forest fires directly. They also cleared bushes in white pine forests to prevent blister rust.

Consolidated Chippewa workers took on two of the CCC-ID’s largest-scale projects. For the first, completed at Grand Portage between 1939 and 1940, they rebuilt the historic site’s stockade and gathered archeological objects for donation to the Cook County Historical Society. Thanks in part to their efforts, the nine-mile Grand Portage Trail, a site of cultural and historical importance to the Ojibwe, later became the Grand Portage National Monument.

For the second project, a thirty-five-person unit from White Earth made a wild rice site at Rice Lake more accessible by building a log walkway, constructing docks and canals, clearing five ten-acre campsites, and adding restrooms. A Nett Lake crew also worked on a rice camp project. The workers left projects when necessary in order to gather wild rice with their families.

Blister-rust work at Red Lake meant cutting, clearing, and burning bushes and stumps to protect white pines from the spores of currant bushes. Crews there also did fire prevention work, and one project at Ponemah Camp created a tree nursery. Workers grew trees in the Experimental Plot project, made maple syrup, and surveyed and mapped 80,000 acres of the Red Lake forest. The Red Lake Agency offered classes in first aid, forestry, communication, and current events.

The Minnesota Sioux Agency’s projects varied. From 1934 to 1936, one Dakota crew worked in the Pipestone quarry to create picnic areas and a visitors’ shelter, laying the groundwork for the Pipestone National Monument. Another dug wells and installed water pipes for the local community. Workmen also cleared trees around a school and erected a railing of posts and wire to mark boundaries between reservation and non-reservation land.

The CCC-ID dissolved in 1943 when the federal government diverted attention and funding to World War II. By then, Native Americans from multiple Minnesota communities had gained wages, work experience (including management experience), and some improvements in living conditions.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.