Truth and reconciliation

#4 – Native American Treaties and Maps

Broken Treaties

‘This land is your land…’ but we will take it from you and leave you with a trail of tears…

As we continue with our truth series we take a brief look here at how treaties were used to take the lands of the indigenous people.

The official history site of the United States says: The U.S. Government used treaties as one means to displace Indians from their tribal lands. Other more vicious methods were also used including extermination, starvation, assimilation and discrimination as well as the regular practice of breaking treaties.

How can it be that treaties are made and then broken unilaterally by one party time and time again? Throughout our global history treaties were broken when one party intended to go to war with the other party, the U.S. was no exception. Arthur Spirling, Harvard professor, concluded that the strategy of the U.S. government was to make take-it-or-leave-it offers leaving the tribes powerless to object. The treaties were broken so often that it became obvious that breaking treaties was the strategy of the U.S. government.

As we saw in the Doctrine of (Christian) Discovery article, the Supreme Court “rationalized” land succession by disavowing that the natives had a right to the land. However, author Stuart Banner concluded from his research that it was implicit in the agreements that the Indians actually owned the land and were thus able to trade it away. Looking at the various treaties, one sees that the U.S. government used the term “Nation” intentionally and assumed that the natives were transferring their right of possession. As one reads treaties this right becomes an indisputable fact. Nebraska Studies simply describes the treaties as those between “Sovereign Nations.”

Ojibwe (aka Anishinaabe; Anglicized to Chippewa)

In 1863 in connection with the signing of the Old Crossing Treaty, Alexander Ramsey arrived on behalf of the U.S. government with 300 troops and a Gatling gun. Ramsey presented the Treaty as a right to pass through Ojibwe country. However, the Treaty actually ceded 11 million acres, including most of the Red River Valley of North Dakota and a substantial portion of northwest Minnesota, to the U.S. government. The Senate made several changes to the Treaty and Many Ojibwe refused to sign it. Bishop Henry Whipple said the Treaty was a fraud from beginning to end. Note that Grand Forks and the University of North Dakota are located on these lands.

An additional nine million acres were ceded to the U.S. government under the McCumber Treaty (known as the 10-cent Treaty). The Treaty was made in 1892 but Chief Little Shell III refused to sign it so the government waited until after he died and finalized the treaty in 1904.

A common misconception is that American Indians are compensated in many ways for their lands, such as free education, monthly checks and no taxation. First, American Indians pay for college the same way other students do as they compete for funding and scholarships.

Second, a quick look at the poverty rates on the reservations will dispel any notion that American Indians are receiving government handouts. Poverty rates on larger reservations in the tri-state area of the Dakotas and Minnesota are three to four times the state averages and nationwide extreme poverty rates on larger reservations are as much as six times the average rate for the nation. Regarding taxation, one study estimated that every Native American man, woman and child in North Dakota contributed an average of $1,342 in taxes in 2012, a lot of taxes for an impoverished people!

Cherokee Treaties

‘This land is your land…’ but we will take it from you and leave you with a trail of tears…

One prominent treaty that is significant to the Indian struggle is the Treaty of New Ochota, which was ratified by Congress despite objections by Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. President Andrew Jackson, who history has shown was extremely corrupt in numerous ways, engineered the signing of the Treaty with a tiny fraction of the Cherokee Nation of Alabama and Georgia. The majority of the Cherokee objected to the Treaty and tried to keep their land but they were driven out by Federal troops and Georgia militia and forcibly relocated to eastern Oklahoma.

The relocation is known as the “Trail of Tears” because more than one-fourth of the Indians died in route due to the brutal conditions. This happened even though the Supreme Court had ruled that the individual states had no rights to Indian lands. Andrew Jackson ignored the Supreme Court and sent federal troops to drive out the Cherokee. He said that if the Court wanted the Indians to have rights they could enforce their decision themselves.

Great Sioux Nation

No treaties are more significant to the people of this tri-state area and to tribes that comprise the Great Sioux Nation than the Treaties of Fort Laramie. Approximately 10,000 Indians gathered in 1851 from numerous tribes, including the Sioux, Crow, Mandan, Hidatsa, Cheyenne, Arapaho and others to define boundaries for various tribes. The 1851 Treaty set boundaries with the Great Sioux Nation for the first time. The map shows the boundaries and it is important to note that the Treaty set the eastern boundary at the east side of the Missouri River, thus acknowledging that this section of the Missouri River was part of the Great Sioux Nation. Settlers were allowed to cross the lands but only in designated places along established trails.

By 1868 the U.S. government intervened allegedly due to skirmishes between settlers and Indians. The government wrote a new treaty, the 1868 Treaty with the Sioux Nation, which covered the same area but gave different distinctions to the Reservation lands outside of what is now South Dakota. Chief Sitting Bull said, “They want us to give up another chunk of our tribal land. This is not the first time or the last time.”

And it wasn’t as the reservation shrunk dramatically.

In 1874, in clear violation of the Treaty, the government sent Custer into the Black Hills where he led an expedition of over 1,000 soldiers and others to evaluate resources. Speculation soon surfaced that there was gold in the Black Hills and the sacred Black Hills could no longer be part of the deal. Once again the government reneged and by now the pattern was clear just as Sitting Bull had observed.

The U.S. government stopped entering into treaties with Indians in 1871 and in 1877 they simply broke the Sioux Nation Treaty and annexed the Black Hills and all of the western one-sixth of South Dakota. By 1889 the Sioux tribes had no voice left and their reservation was cut in half and tribes were segregated. The Great Sioux Reservation became a microcosm of the 1851 and 1868 treaties and it became impossible for the tribes to continue their way of life. The hunting grounds, which were to remain so long as the buffalo roamed, were decimated as Buffalo Bill and others had needlessly slaughtered most of them.

No justice occurred until 1980 when the Supreme Court ruled that the 1968 Treaty had been violated and that the U.S. government had wrongfully taken the Black Hills and wrongfully terminated the hunting rights. In 2011, PBS reported the value of the unclaimed monetary damages to be $1.3 billion. The Sioux have refused the money – they want their sacred lands. It is for them the Garden of Eden where the creator breathed life into them.

This is but three examples of the nearly 600 treaties, most of which were unilaterally broken by the U.S. government. This needs to be healed, the Broken Treaties as well as the (false) Doctrine of Discovery, and they can be if we all have the will to reconcile and take some courageous steps.


Tyson Jeannette and Michael Hendrickson, contributing writers.