Chain of covenants Na­tion to Na­tion: Treaties Be­tween the U.S. and Amer­i­can In­dian Na­tions at Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can In­dian


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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

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