Native Perspectives on Treaty Making
More than 560 federally recognized tribal governments have entered into several hundred treaties, both ratified and unratified, with the United States. From nation to nation, the customs, laws, languages, and philosophies greatly differ. It follows that the concepts of treaty making and diplomacy are distinctive as well. Many differing factors lead to negotiations, depending on the Native groups involved. Although treaties were common among the tribes in the southeastern United States, the Woodlands (eastern United States), the Great Plains, and the Northwest, many groups never entered into treaties and some negotiated treaties that were never ratified either by the United States or by their tribal citizens.
Indigenous nations approached the treaty-making process in vastly different ways, according to the political, social, and cultural contexts. The process involved leaders who made sincere assessments of the difficulties faced by their citizens and made decisions to enter into treaties even though the will of the people did not wish to enter into treaties. Other leaders entered into treaties that directly benefited them personally. In the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek (1830), Chief Greenwood LeFlore of the Choctaw consented to have the Choctaw people removed from their ancestral lands and relocated to Indian Territory. Nonetheless, he was permitted to remain in Mississippi and to maintain ownership of his lands. Other tribal leaders received favorable land allocations and monetary payments in exchange for signing treaties that bound their nations to opposite fates.
Some tribes had treaty councils or treaty delegations that were clearly sanctioned by the tribal people as spokespersons. The Chickasaw Nation, in the 1890s, issued official notarized certificates from the tribal government to individuals who were official delegates to Washington. These individuals had the right to negotiate on behalf of the people and the ability to enter into treaties and bind the people they represented. However, other indigenous nations did not believe that a small group of people had the authority to represent the full body of the tribe, and instead required the approval of general councils before decisions could be made. For instance, some treaties had provisions that affirmatively required subsequent amendments to the treaty to be submitted to a popular vote of the tribal people.
The Treaty as a Negotiation Process
Following the negotiations, the federal representatives would typically create a written document that constituted the agreement of the parties. Given the fact that few tribal representatives spoke English—the written language used in most treaties—it was the spirit of the negotiations that were important to tribal communities, not the piece of paper that followed. Tribal leaders who could not read or write English routinely placed their marks in the form of an "X" on the treaty document to register assent to the terms of the document. Promises and affirmations that were made during the negotiations were as binding, from the Native perspective, as the document that followed. Therefore, tribes that later sought compliance with oral promises of negotiations were disenchanted with the non-Natives' strict reliance on the words of the final, written version of the treaty.
The Force and Effect of Treaties
Many of the guarantees in treaties with Native Americans are promises that were intended in perpetuity. Despite the permanent language in the treaties that suggests the treaties will live on forever, the United States has failed to comply with most treaties, at least in part. Although the federal government's history of unilaterally breaking treaties is well documented, changing tribal circumstances and reversals of tribal diplomatic decisions should also be noted. Tribes, too, have abrogated treaties unilaterally. During the American Revolution, indigenous groups entered into treaties of alliance with both Great Britain and the colonies. During the American Civil War, groups with long histories of relations with the federal government entered into treaties with the Confederacy. Allegiances changed, and treaties were renegotiated.
Deloria, Vine, Jr. and Raymond J. DeMallie. Documents of American Indian Diplomacy. Vol. 1. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999; Pommersheim, Frank. Braid of Feathers: American Indian Law and Contemporary Tribal Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995; Prucha, Francis P. American Indian Treaties: The History of a Political Anomaly. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994; Viola, Herman J. Diplomats in Buckskin: A History of Indian Delegations in Washington City. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.