Focus on Treaties for Native American Heritage Month
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During the month of November, the United States commemorates National Native American Heritage Month, which recognizes the rich culture and historical importance of the indigenous peoples who first settled this land. What had originally started in 1986 as American Indian Week has evolved into a month-long celebration organized during a time that coincides with traditional fall harvests, feasts, powwows, and other gatherings held by various Native American tribes. Many national and local events for National Native American Heritage Month are typically organized around a yearly theme, for which in 2011 is "Service, Honor, and Respect: Strengthening our Cultures and Communities."

Many activities taking place during National Native American Heritage Month honor the different tribes who have shaped this country while acknowledging the challenges that Native Americans have faced and their complex relationship with the United States. For example, a partnership between Dakota Sioux and Ojibwe tribal leaders, the Minnesota Humanities Center, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) explores these links through "Why Treaties Matter," a Minnesota-based traveling exhibit on treaty making between the Dakota and Ojibwe nations and the U.S. government during the 19th century. Such agreements as the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux (1851) and the Treaty of Mendota (1851) had transformative effects on the North American landscape, as millions of acres of land—and thus rights to fishing, hunting, and other natural resources—were transferred to the United States, and led to widespread hardship among the Dakota when the government failed to deliver regular annuity payments as agreed upon in the treaties.

Due in part to vast differences between Native and non-Native perspectives on treaty making, numerous misunderstandings and conflicts have emerged from agreements forged between Native Americans and the U.S. government (in recent years, perhaps most notably evident in an ongoing tribal citizenship dispute between the Cherokee Nation and descendants of Cherokee freedmen). However, "Why Treaties Matter" organizers, who plan on expanding the exhibit to a national scale in 2014, also stress that such agreements have protected the right of treaty-making tribes to exist as the sovereign entities they are today. Upper Sioux Community member Tom Ross, who helped organize the exhibit, remarked to Minnesota Public Radio, "They're not old archaic pieces. They represent a people, and to me, those treaties are why we're still here as a people." During National Native American Heritage Month, "Why Treaties Matter" is scheduled to appear at two locations in Bemidji, Minnesota, which is surrounded by Red Lake, White Earth, and Leech Lake, the three largest Native American reservations in the state.

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