Government Treaties with Native Americans – A History of Broken Promises
Prior to and during the American Revolution, the 13 colonies comprising the fledgling United States found themselves surrounded by British military forts and various tribes lending their support to the British Crown due to trade relations and other factors. Many of the tribes tried to remain neutral, however, others decided to join the revolutionaries and support the colonists. Both the British military and the Americans sought out Native allies throughout the conflict. Two of the tribes of the Iroquois league, Oneida and Tuscarora, and Stock bridge Indians of Massachusetts were some of the tribes supporting Washington’s fledging army (see link below). These actions split many of the tribal confederacies established amongst the Iroquois and Cherokee for example.
The U.S. Government has, over the centuries, negotiated and signed hundreds of treaties with the Native American Tribes. In the period from 1770 to 1870, about 370 different treaties were ratified andsigned, with the exception of the 18 treaties of California of 1851-52. These treaties were based on many complex issues, with the goal of taking land from those tribes by force or other means. The only legal instrument that the federal government had to quiet the aboriginal title to those lands by either force or other means, was through treaty. In some cases the treaties were disguised under the heading of Peace and Friendship, but were used to steal Indian lands as in the case of the Doty Treaty of Ruby Valley in 1863 amongst the Western Shoshone tribes of Nevada. However, many of these treaties also stated a guarantee of peace, preservation of fishing and hunting rights, defined land boundaries of tribal land and the protection of the indigenous people from both foreign and domestic enemies. Many, if not most, although ratified by the US Senate and signed into law by the President, were never properly implemented, if at all, and over time were quietly swept into administrative black holes, never to be seen againas in the case of the 18 treaties of California in 1852 until their “rediscovery” in 1905 by a Senate Clerk and Charles E. Kelsey of San Jose in 1905, who was later named Special Indian Agent for the Landless and Homeless California Indians.
why Did It Happen?
Over these past two centuries it has been easy to simply to dismiss the rights of Native American Nations as a sign of the prevailing attitudes of those times when “Indians” were considered non-citizens who were barely entitled only to what the White man “gave” them as compensation for the theft of their lands. But this is not the whole story. In certain sectors of American society, there were demands for fair treatment for the American Indians, but the requirements, expectations and sensitivities of the hundreds of different tribes varied greatly. With the exception of a few “reformers” such as Helen Hunt Jackson, who wrote a scathing critique of Indian policies titled A Century of Dishonor in 1881, no single voice to advocate their common needs and the types of support and protection these tribes required, the whole issue of the treatment of Native Americans became so fragmented that the oversight fell under an ever changing, but ultimately useless and in effective, Indian Service Bureau (predecessor of the Bureau of Indian Affairs), whereby the sovereign rights of Native tribes today are still being undermined and threatened by special interest groups and even the Supreme Court (as in the recent cases of the Dakota Pipeline, and the recent ruling where Supreme Court Justices ruled that states have jurisdiction in prosecuting crimes committed by non-Natives against Native Americans in “Indian country.”
The California Story
The way the Native American Tribes in California have been treated is an example that applies to the rest of the country as well. Between 1851-52, 18 separate treaties were signed with 122 California Native American tribes. However, these treaties needed to be ratified by the Congress and signed by the President in order to become law, which, it voted decided not to do so due to the objections from the newly elected senators from California. Furthermore, these treaties were placed with injunction of secrecy in the secret archives of the US Senate until their rediscovery in 1905. The CaliforniaTribes signed these treaties in good faith, thinking and hoping that these documents would mark the end of the persecution and dislocation from their homelands as well as securing certain rights accorded to American Indians. The government treaty commissioners wanted to limit lands to the tribes, totaling around 8.5 million acres to be set aside throughout each of the 18 treaty districts out of approximately 100 million acres comprising California.As the warfare continued against California tribes after the American “conquest,” with their population in great decline, the tribes realized that a compromise was required–they reluctantly agreed to sign those treaties.(https://digicoll.lib.berkeley.edu/record/83366),
As a result, the treaties were signed, however, not by all the tribes, nonetheless, these tribal communities formulated survival strategies as their lifeways and families were decimated.Of course, as history shows, many of the 371 ratified treaties either went into limbo, or their land rights and recognition as federally recognized tribes have since been eroded, by greed, and as a result, in many cases, nothing has changed.
Is There Hope for the Future?
Much is being spoken about the need to address and correct the wrongs inflicted on the American Indian tribes. But the actual progress has been abysmal. Every excuse imaginable is being brought forth to explain why correcting BIA administrative errors is not possible or why it is taking so long. One question, however, remains unanswered – the treaties were negotiated and signed by Governmentagentsand ratified by the US Senate. If these documents have no value, what about the other domestic and international treaties that have been signed which are the keystones of the United States law today, in the final analysis it appears that the Native American treaties are still vulnerable to the political winds of various powerbrokers as administrations change hands and new anti-Native American rights Supreme Court Justices are seated for life to erode the rights of the aboriginal people of America.
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