Chain of covenants Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the U.S. and American Indian Nations at Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian
NATION TO NATION: TREATIES BETWEEN THE U.S. & AMERICAN INDIAN NATIONS
IN ARTICLE VI, THE CONSTITUTION STATES THAT TREATIES ARE THE SUPREME LAW OF THE LAND.
The U.S. has made approximately 400 treaties with various Native nations, and nine important treaties are the focus of Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations ,a stunning exhibit expertly curated by Suzan Shown Harjo at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. An accompanying book of the same title features essays by Native and nonNative historians and legal scholars. In stressing the “legally binding” nature of treaties, museum director Kevin Gover (Pawnee) quotes Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black as saying in 1960: “Great nations, like great men, should keep their word.” This wisdom took a long time to permeate American dealings with Native nations.
U.S. treaties with American Indians were initially inked with goodwill and trust, but these values gave way to greed and broken promises, and only in modern times have relations begun to heal — to the extent that healing is possible. Few Americans know about the treaties that are the bedrock of this relationship between Natives and the government, or that these treaties were made in perpetuity. Over the course of roughly 200 years, these treaties went from being “dignified ceremonies” to what American Indians began to regard as “bad paper,” until a 1973 Supreme Court case finally recognized tribal sovereignty.
After the Revolutionary War, Native nations forged a “covenant chain” — which is how the Iroquois describe their alliances — with the Americans. The very first treaties were signed by the Founding Fathers. In 1790 and 1794, George Washington made treaties with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Georgia and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) of New York — the homelands of both tribes were buffer zones between the U.S. and lands claimed by Britain and Spain. These early treaties were made with honorable intentions. Both sides came as equals to the negotiating table.
To confirm these alliances, the American Indians made Two-Row Wampum belts that illustrated the philosophy behind them. The belts are made of white shells; inside the white, two rivers of purple flow alongside each other. The two rivers represent the parallel paths that Natives and the new settlers planned to travel on, peaceably, and without intersecting.
In the early days, the idealism of the wampum belts was not an exaggeration. Most Indians still thought of the young American government as the “Great Father,” who kept their interests in mind while making treaties. During the treaty ceremonies, the American Indians smoked pipes — they believed the smoke would go to the Creator and also oblige them to speak the truth. They encouraged the white agents to smoke pipes during the negotiations as well.
In his essay “Treaties With Native Nations” in the book Nation to Nation, Robert N. Clinton argues that since Indians had a society structured by kinship, they viewed a treaty not merely as a “static document,” but also as a way to establish and maintain relationships. Still, early mishaps, such as the Walking Purchase fraud in colonial Pennsylvania that cost the Lenape tribe over one million acres of land, made Indians suspicious. In 1758, a Cayuga leader, Tokaaion, said about the English: “I fear they only speak from their Mouth, and not from their Heart.”
Nine original treaties will be on rotating display every six months during the exhibit’s six-year run. On display last spring was a remarkable example of an early treaty, the 1790 Treaty of New York between the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the U.S., which bears the signatures of George Washington and thenSecretary of State Thomas Jefferson. When these original treaties began to arrive on loan from the National Archives, museum officials noted that the wampum belts, which come from various Indian collections, were in better condition than the parchment treaties.
The Two-Row Wampum belt represents a philosophy that over time became subject to gross distortion. Instead of being a document to advance diplomatic
relations, treaties became a tool to appropriate more Indian land. It would be almost two centuries before greater political awareness, a lot of political activism by tribes, and favorable Supreme Court decisions allowed Native nations to move toward self-determination.
America’s westward expansion began early, and land quickly became a precious and limited resource. The demand for more land caused the government and its agents to renegotiate treaties with less favorable terms and ever-smaller tracts of lands for Native Americans. These tracts became so small that Indians were no longer able to live as hunter-gatherers or farmers. Penned in on reservations, they became dependent on often corrupt agents for food.
Those who lived east of the Mississippi were subjected to President Andrew Jackson’s “removal” policy. Speaking to Congress, Jackson characterized the Indians as having “rude institutions” and “savage ways.” Advocates of the removal policy tried to make it look voluntary, but when even bribes did not convince tribes to agree to removal, they were forced — occasionally with bayonets at their backs — to march westward.
Potawatomi chief Menominee gave refuge to his people who didn’t want to move from the Potawatomi nation in Indiana. He petitioned the government to be allowed to stay, but the promises made to him were broken. In 1838, when and he and his people were forced to leave Indiana, Menominee said: “The President does not know the truth . ... He does not know that I have refused to sell my lands, and still refuse. He would not, by force, drive me from my home, the graves of my tribe and my children who have gone to the Great Spirit . ... I have not sold my lands. I will not sell them. I have not signed any treaty, and I shall not sign any.”
The forced march of the Potawatomi people to Kansas began that September. An epidemic of typhoid broke out. The most vulnerable — children and old people — died on the journey. Food was nonexistent. Soldiers didn’t help the marchers; they simply stood guard and pointed guns at them. In an exhibit video narrated by Robert Redford, an old woman recalls her experience of the march: As an eight-yearold girl, she carried her four-year-old brother even though she was so tired she thought she would die; she had watched babies being killed who were too big to carry, but too young to walk far, and she was terrified someone would kill her baby brother. The march came to be known as the Trail of Death.
On other marches, the toll was just as wrenching. According to exhibit curator Suzan Shown Harjo, genocide is an appropriate description of what happened on these forced migrations. The Cherokee marched from the southeastern states to Oklahoma on what is known as the Trail of Tears. When they got to Oklahoma in October, winter was upon them. They had been promised food and housing, but they found rough sheds instead. During such winters, when expected supplies trickled in rather than flowed, Indians were vulnerable to starvation.
Early treaty ceremonies in the 18th century had an almost a spiritual component, using phrases such as the “Great Spirit” and the “Great Father.” But during the 19th century, many treaties became a mercenary tool, and U.S. treaty commissioners employed alcohol and bribes to gain their ends, or took advantage of petty squabbles among tribes and tribal members to get malleable “chiefs” to sign the papers. Thus they employed the “divide and rule” policy that former colonial powers such as the British famously used to consolidate power in India.
The narrative didn’t improve for a while. In California, during the Gold Rush, rogue agents negotiated treaties with Indian tribes on scraps of paper in exchange for mining rights. By 1852, three federal commissioners had negotiated 18 treaties that extinguished Indian claims to almost all of California west of the Sierra Nevada. Congress never ratified these treaties, but Natives did not know this. They left their valuable lands for other lands they had been promised and to which they were refused entry. In the process, they became homeless wanderers and beggars, and
In stressing the “legally binding” nature of treaties, museum director Kevin Gover (Pawnee) quotes Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black as saying in 1960: “Great nations, like great men, should keep their word.”
Jesuit missionaries eventually took some of them in. Not surprisingly, Indians began to mistrust treaties.
In this starless night of 19th-century treaties, the 1868 treaty between the U.S. and the Navajo Nation is the moon peeking through the clouds. In the Southwest, where land was not as scarce, Indians experienced a different fate. Between 1863 and 1866, the Navajos too had been forcibly removed to a less lucrative land — about 11,500 people were marched 400 miles from their reservation in present-day Arizona to the Bosque Redondo reservation in New Mexico. Here, they were expected to build a new life as farmers. Their crops failed, however, because of the heat and the pests, and the Navajo people grew dispirited. “This land does not like us, neither does the water,” said Barboncito, who along with another war chief, Manuelito, argued eloquently with U.S. negotiators on their people’s behalf. In her essay “Naal Tsoos Saní,” in Nation
to Nation, Jennifer Nez Denetdale writes, “General [William Tecumseh] Sherman attempted to persuade the leaders that their people should move to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Barboncito’s response is legendary: ‘I hope to God you will not ask me to go to any other country except my own.’ ”
First, the Navajo men spoke to General Sherman, the chief U.S. negotiator, about their desire to return to their homeland. The women’s petition is said to have been more persuasive. The Navajo’s yearning for their homeland apparently changed General Sherman’s mind. “You are right,” he said. “All people love the country where they were born and raised.” The Navajo Treaty of 1868 was signed and a key provision allowed the Navajo to return to their homeland. This success eventually instilled confidence among other Indian tribes that treaties can have real meaning. The original Navajo treaty will be on display at the Smithsonian exhibit from February 2018 to July 2018.
It is interesting to consider that the Navajos persuaded General Sherman with their eloquence. The American Indians lived in a society where the oral tradition — the spoken word — was supreme. The Anglos, however, trusted the written word. This difference gave rise to translation problems: the English version of the written treaty didn’t always correspond to the oral version in the Native language; translators weren’t necessarily available for the various languages spoken by different tribes; and it was a struggle to find words for concepts such as “land cessions” and “reservations.”
Between the 1940s and the 1960s, the U.S. government made bold attempts at “termination” of treaties, basically to end its obligations toward Native nations, and “dozens were federally terminated.” The counterculture movement caused a shift in thinking — the 1960s were a time of widespread activism and the Indian cause became one of those highlighted. By the 1970s, Native nations became more sophisticated about their legal strategy, and selected test cases that could clearly articulate the issues at stake.
In 1973, a landmark case came before the Supreme Court, and Justice Thurgood Marshall’s decision to rely on Justice John Marshall’s 1932 interpretation of tribes as “sovereign nations” opened the gates for more favorable court decisions in the years to come. Legal recognition of Indian national sovereignty makes treaties a game-changing element in contemporary Indian life. Now, tribal governments work closely with the federal government on programs that impact American Indians.
Knowing how close the U.S. came to walking away from its treaties with Native nations is a worthwhile history lesson to ponder. During a tour of the exhibit, the guide noted that “every eight-year-old on a reservation” can recite the treaty relevant to his or her tribe. The text of these treaties, and knowledge of the struggle it has taken to uphold them, is valuable information these children will need to lead Native nations into the future. In the meantime, this exhibit is a rare opportunity for all parties involved to revisit the meaning of the Two-Row Wampum belt. As the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois or Six Nations) put it:
“We are traveling on the river of life together, side by side. One side isn’t going to get ahead of the other; people in the ship aren’t going to try to steer the canoe; people in the canoe aren’t going to try to steer the ship.”
“Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations” exhibits through spring 2020 at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The book of the same title, edited by Suzan Shown Harjo, is available from Smithsonian Books.
The American Indians made Two-Row Wampum belts that illustrated the philosophy behind the treaties. The belts are made of white shells; inside the white, two rivers of purple flow alongside each other. The two rivers represent the parallel paths that Natives and the new settlers planned to travel on, peaceably, and without intersecting.
Two pages from the Navajo Treaty of 1868; below right, Manuelito, circa 1882, Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), Neg. No. 134484 Opposite page, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy Oren Lyons, right, and Tadodaho (Chief ) Sidney Hill of the Onondaga Nation examining the Treaty of Canandaigua of 1794; inset, George Washington peace medal, 1792, Pennsylvania, silver; all images this spread courtesy Smithsonian Books
From top to bottom, Algonquin wampum belt, circa 1671, Quebec; Lenape (Delaware) “Penn” wampum belt, circa 1682, Pennsylvania; Chippewa wampum belt, circa 1807, Great Lakes Region; Wendat (Huron) wampum belt, circa 1612, Quebec; Mohawk wampum belt, circa 1700-50, Great Lakes Region