The Ceremonies of Treaties

American Indians generally did not agree with Mr. Manypenny. They recognized the danger of economic dependency, but they also believed that annuities had a political significance that transcended their simple economic value. The Six Nations of Iroquois received a $4,500 annuity for signing the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, and took part of their payment in textiles.

For more than 220 years, down to the present day, Iroquois leaders have commemorated the Canandaigua treaty as the foundation of their sovereign-to-sovereign relationship with the United States, and have received and distributed the annuity cloth, affirming the treaty’s continuance. The cloth doesn’t go very far (a yard or two per person), but it conveys a clear message to the Six Nations: you are nations and another sovereign sees you as such.

A 2013 commemoration of the Treaty of Canandaigua in Syracuse, New York. The banner calls on Native treaties to be honored.

An Odawa chief made the same point when in return for a large land cession he requested not only a tribal annuity but a gorget (neckplate) inscribed with “The Odawa nation is entitled to 800 dollars a year forever by the [1807] Treaty of Detroit.” The key words here were almost certainly nation and forever. Odawa nationhood preceded the Treaty of Detroit, but the treaty’s annuity provision provided an annual and perpetual proof of their sovereign identity.

Actual annuity distributions offered not just gorget-wearing chiefs but all of the recipients the opportunity to gather and renew the social ties that underpinned their national unity. In the 1850s Ojibwas turned annuity days into festivals of dancing and performance, celebrations of Ojibwa cultural continuity that attracted not only Indian but white spectators. Later in the century, the Arapahos treated annuity distributions like the American Fourth of July, a time to dress up, visit friends and relatives, socialize, and feast.

Annuities, school funds, and fishing rights were contested goods; all remained subject to outside manipulation. But they did become public goods, which Native Americans held or drew in their collective capacity, under sovereign-to-sovereign agreements.

The Ojibwas’ and Arapahoes’ conversion of annuity days into holidays and public performances reminds us that Indians did not consider sovereignty an external grant or gift, something conveyed solely by written documents and official recognition by a foreign government. Sovereignty grew from a people’s collective national identity and the social bonds that supported it. Sovereign identity was constructed and reconstructed and was regularly and publicly asserted.

Herein lies the reason why Indians considered a treaty something larger than a sealed and signed document: To them, the more important meaning of “treaty” was the large public conference where men and women gathered to negotiate and solemnize interethnic agreements.

As with annuity distributions, Indians often attended treaty conferences en masse, to represent the bands, clans, and political classes (chiefs, warriors, and matrons) that comprised their nations, and to show by their numbers the broadest display of internal consent. Nine hundred Cherokees, for example, attended the 1785 Hopewell treaty conference; 6,000 Potawatomis came to the 1833 Treaty of Chicago; and over 10,000 Lakotas, Cheyennes, and other northern Plains Indians gathered at Fort Laramie for their 1851 treaty.

A statue in Fredericksburg, Texas commemorating the 1847 peace treaty between the Comanche and white settlers.

The attendees came not just as spectators or behind-the-scenes discussants. Many played a role in ritually consecrating the treaty ground and creating a political bond with American treaty commissioners. Iroquois men and women performed stomp dances like Standing Quiver, in which on at least one occasion they invited white officials to join.

Muskogee (Creek) Eagle Tail dancers touched treaty commissioners with white eagle wings before seating them on white deerskins before a white pole. White signified peace in the Native southeast, and the Eagle Tail Dance might pacify and purify the Americans’ troubled minds. In the Great Lakes region and on the northern Plains, the ceremonial tobacco pipe known as the calumet served an analogous social and ritual function. Tobacco soothed the mind and stomach, and its smoke joined white and Indian imbibers to one another and to the celestial realm.

Dance and ritual helped legitimize treaty councils, establishing social and spiritual bonds, but for Native peoples oral addresses comprised, arguably, the most important parts of treaty assemblies. Indian speakers devoted considerable time to ensuring that everyone understood their speeches, taking time to discuss their content with their kinsmen beforehand, and then speaking slowly to allow time for translation.

The Iroquois and Great Lakes Indians often gave their listeners strings and belts of wampum, or ceremonial shell beads, to emphasize the solemnity of their words—wampum was difficult to make and northeastern Indians did not give it away lightly—or used wampum belts as aides-memoire, to help recall the content of particular “talks.”

A replica of the wampum belt given by the Lenni Lenape tribe to William Penn for the “Treaty of Amity and Friendship” in 1683.

Native American speakers also used metaphors to help listeners understand them, and to compound the solemnity of the conference. Through metaphors, speakers figuratively opened their counterparts’ eyes and ears, dried their tears, and wiped away their blood. They drew attention to clear skies and brightly burning conference fires, helping put bad memories aside and focusing on a better present. Many of these figures of speech originated with the Iroquois, but by the late eighteenth century they had spread throughout the eastern United States.

The Huron-Wendat captain Tarhe (The Crane) thought their origin sacred, calling diplomatic metaphors “the emblematic language that the Great Spirit gave to his children.” Modern legal scholar Robert Williams (Lumbee) draws our attention to another important function of this figurative language: it was “jurisgenerative,” laying the verbal groundwork for a “binding treaty relationship of law.”

By emphasizing the common suffering and hopes of whites and Indians, Native American diplomats acknowledged the two groups’ common humanity, and recognized white Americans’ standing, as fellow humans, to negotiate with them.

Depiction of the signing of the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 between U.S. General Anthony Wayne and Mishikinakwa of the Miami.

Speeches served another important purpose: they allowed chiefs and captains to assure American officials that they spoke for something larger for themselves, invoking the constituent groups that made up their nation. Chickasaw leaders Mingatushka and Mountain Leader presented American commissioners at the Hopewell conference (1786) with a medal owned by “the daughter and mother” of some of the “great men of our nation,” reminding listeners that their identity as Chickasaws grew from their female-line relationships (matrilineages).

Great Lakes Indian leaders signed the Greenville treaty (1795) as members of specific nations or towns, and some used pictograms to signify their clan membership. In the 1830s Ojibwa town chiefs (ogemaa) took care at treaty conferences to identify the specific communities they represented and to remind everyone that their authority came from these sources.

At the same time, Native American speakers reiterated their right to associate with other Indian nations; after the War of 1812, for example, Tarhe reminded William Henry Harrison of the wartime assistance given him by U.S.-allied Delawares, Senecas, Shawnees, and Wendats, and indicated that these Indian peoples would remain culturally allied with one another.

Treaty documents might only occasionally discuss the issue of Indian national membership, but in Native Americans’ carefully composed public addresses, at the treaty councils which Indians considered coequal with written treaty documents, the issue of identity assumed vital importance.

A poster from the Department of the Interior advertising the sale of “Indian Land” under the authority of the Dawes Act.

After the American Civil War, the U.S. government decided that it now only wanted Indians to hold one national identity: subjects of the United States. It saw treaties and Indian sovereignty as barriers to the work of assimilation. In 1871 Congress banned further Indian treaty-making, as a preliminary to assuming what the Supreme Court called (in Lone Wolf vs. Hitchcock [1903]) “plenary power” over Indians’ lives. A Major Crimes Act (1885) severely curtailed Native American control of reservation law enforcement, and the infamous Dawes Act (1887) allowed the Interior Department to privatize and sell Indians’ remaining communally held lands.

By the early twentieth century, however, white activists like John Collier and Native American reformers like Carlos Montezuma and Gertrude Bonnin concluded that the assimilation project had only produced greater poverty and isolation. In the 1930s Collier (now Superintendent of Indian Affairs) reintroduced a limited government-to-government relationship under the Indian Reorganization Act, which encouraged Indian nations to establish reservation governments and buy back their old lands. In 1946, Congress recognized the validity and violation of earlier treaties when it established the Indian Claims Commission, to compensate Indians (however parsimoniously) for lost lands.


Carlos Montezuma as a young man in 1890 (left). Gertrude Bonnin in 1897 (right).

During the 1960s, activists like Clyde Warrior argued that Indians’ real wealth lay in their sovereign right of self-government, and a decade later Congress moved toward partial restoration of Native American autonomy through the Indian Self-Determination Act (1975) and the Indian Child Welfare Act (1978), giving tribal nations more control over federal funds and the protection of children.

Thanks in large part to Indian activism, the U.S. government now sees Native American sovereignty not as an anachronism but a legal reality.

NODAPL and Native American Sovereign Rights

As for treaties, the United States might not make them any longer, but the 400 negotiated between 1778 and 1871 remain living documents. One can still hear echoes of the treaty era at Standing Rock today.

A nineteenth-century Indian civil chief, warrior, or matron, transported somehow to the encampments on the Cannonball River in 2016, would see many unfamiliar sights, but the social environment would seem familiar.

Protesters in Standing Rock insisting that treaty rights and sacred ground be respected.

The thousands of protesters encamped near the DAPL site use sweat lodges and burning sage to purify themselves and their ground. They follow rules of conduct laid down by Sioux officials. They gather non-violently, women, men, and children alike. They talk of boundaries, of past treaties, and of protecting the remains and sacred sites of their ancestors. The NODAPL protests, in short, have much in common with nineteenth-century treaty conferences.

Against this nonviolent, collective demonstration of sovereignty, and against the justice of the protesters’ demands, those elements that “realists” would consider the alpha and omega of national sovereignty—money, military power, and the carceral state—stand in grim array. Which vision will win I know not, but in both American and Native American history it is not always a sure bet to back the state against the nation, or the nations.

The author thanks Susan Livingston and Katherine Osburn for their editorial assistance and suggestions.

 Listen to Origins for more on Native American Sovereignty: Native Sovereignty and the Dakota Access Pipeline