How We Know

Scholars are interested in many issues related to treaties, including the ways treaties are interpreted, the role treaties have played in U. S. history, and the evolution of the treaty rights movement.

Anthropologists who study language and culture have tried to understand what the treaty councils meant to Indians at the time the councils were held. For example, John D. Nichols considered how the Treaty of 1837 would have been translated to the Ojibwas by interpreters. A key phrase in the treaty is “The privilege of hunting, fishing, and gathering the wild rice [on ceded territory] is guaranteed to the Indians, during the pleasure of the President.”

Listen to Historian Dave Edmunds Discuss the Miami Claim Regarding the Treaty of Grouseland Help

He also points out how treaty rights cases can reveal different attitudes toward United States history and treaties between Indians and non-Indians.
5:18 mi.

Video Transcript

Treaties also are studied by scholars not just as “contracts” between the United States and individual tribes, but for what they reveal about American culture and history. For hundreds of years before the arrival of Europeans, the indigenous peoples of North America had a diplomatic tradition that worked to create peace and law in a multicultural world. In this tradition, all humankind was entitled to the same rights of survival and self-government. In the diplomatic negotiations between Indians and Americans, this vision survived and was instrumental in the survival of American Indian tribalism. The United States adopted the diplomatic tradition of Native peoples.

Robert Williams and other scholars have identified the components of this tradition.
First, treaty councils were sacred occasions. A pipe ceremony always was central to the negotiations and necessary to the treaty’s legitimacy. The pipe ritual was a sacred promise to the Creator that the parties to the agreement would keep their word. Speeches always were part of the council. Indian orators explained the history behind the agreement—what happened in the past and what grievances existed. They educated the treaty partners about the behavior expected in the future and reinforced shared values. Speeches, often reinforced by songs and dances, were intended to overcome any estrangement and create social and psychological unity among the participants. In their speeches, Indians and Americans used kinship metaphors. Kinship relations established rights and obligations. The term “father” (or “Great Father,” meaning the U. S. President) implied that the father had a duty to protect and help his children and to mediate disputes—he was not a dominating figure. The term “brother” meant that the parties were equal and obligated to help one another. Rituals to express and promote social unity, such as gift-giving, were part of the treaty councils and these were more important to Indians than words on a document. Another important ritual was the “linking of arms” among the participants. When Indians ceded land, they intended to live on it with Americans as “brothers,” so they often insisted on linking arms to symbolize human solidarity.

Research also has shown that Americans have a national “mythology” that shapes who they are as a people and expresses the idea that Indians were inferiors who stood in the way of progress. This belief conflicts with actual historical events and circumstances. In their diplomatic negotiations, Indians accommodated and cooperated, looked for common interests, and tried to promote equality in a multicultural society.

Scholars have also explored the contemporary significance of treaties or the “treaty movement” for Indian people. Indian activism during the past 65 years produced a national movement that highlighted and promoted the recognition of treaty rights. The cases adjudicated by the federal courts resulted in an increased sense of injustice that fueled the support for activists protesting “broken treaties.” For example, the Indian Claims Commission limited the kinds of claims that would be heard, awarded only money (rather than the return of land fraudulently taken), and largely excluded direct Indian participation in court proceedings. Cases in other courts did not always result in decisions favorable to tribes, and even decisions that supported treaty rights did not necessarily result in awards for damages. But the reaffirmation of treaty rights by the courts encouraged tribes to reexamine their relationship with state and federal governments, and the “broken treaties” theme became a vehicle for leaders to use to generate support for sovereignty and for Native people to express their grievances. The struggle for treaty rights also engaged non-Indians as it appealed to their moral and legal sensibilities.

In Indian communities, political support for treaty rights was equated with preserving Native heritage and also expressed Native peoples’ aspirations for recognition and respect. Traditional symbols and activities were revitalized and embraced in new ways, sometimes for new purposes—for example, ideas about the spirit world, oratory and prophesy, warrior regalia (such as a staff), feasting and gift-giving, the use of Native language, and pipe ritual.  In the struggle for treaty rights, there was a reinvigoration of ethnic distinctiveness in the modern world.

Listen to Anthropologist Larry Nesper Discuss the Treaty Rights Movement among Ojibwas Help

10:46 mi.

Video Transcript

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