Focus on Treaties for Native American Heritage Month
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Treaty of Fort Laramie with the Sioux, Etc.

The first Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851), signed at Fort Laramie in southeastern Wyoming on September 17, 1851, established formal relations between the U.S. government and the Northern Plains American Indian nations. The purpose of the treaty was to ensure the safety of the increasing number of overland travelers crossing the plains. The encroaching European American population was competing with American Indians for available resources, and the number of reprisals conducted by both sides was mounting at that time.

The treaty was signed on behalf of the United States by D. D. Mitchell, superintendent of Indian affairs, and Thomas Fitzpatrick, Indian agent. Both commissioners were appointed and authorized for this special occasion by the president. The present American Indian leaders represented nations residing south of the Missouri River, east of the Rocky Mountains, and north of Texas, namely the Sioux (referring to Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota), Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Assiniboine, Mandan, and Arikara.

The treaty contains eight articles, which bound the Native American nations to make peace with one another, to recognize the right of the United States to establish roads and posts within their respective territories, and to make restitution for any wrongs committed by their people against the citizens of the United States. The Native American nations were further supposed to acknowledge the prescribed boundaries of their respective territories and to select head chiefs, through whom all national business would be conducted. The United States bound itself to protect the Natives against U.S. citizens and to deliver certain annuities. If any Native nation violated a single provision of the treaty, the annuities could be withheld.

The Senate ratified the first Treaty of Fort Laramie on May 24, 1852; however, an amendment changing the annuities from 50 to 10 years, with an additional five years at the discretion of the president, was subject to acceptance by the Native nations. Assent of all the nations was procured; the last were the Crow, who assented on September 18, 1854. The treaty was never published as ratified in the U.S. Statutes at Large; consequently, there has been some discussion concerning its validity. The Department of the Interior inadvertently failed to certify the ratification of the treaty by the Native nations to the State Department; therefore, the treaty was not promulgated by the president of the United States. However, in subsequent agreements and by decisions of the court of claims (Moore v. the United States and Roy v. the United States), the treaty was recognized as in force.

Due to the lack of good interpreters, the terms of the treaty were not fully explained to most of the Native leaders present at the council grounds. The 10,000 Natives gathered at their camps near Fort Laramie paid more attention to the fact that many nations that had previously fought each other were engaging in diverse ways of peacemaking there, and that celebrations, dancing, hand games, and various kinds of races were continuing for several days.

The Lakota, dominating the treaty negotiations on the Native side, had significant influence on the demarcation of the territorial boundaries. Although most of the Native nations retained their usual territory, the Northern Cheyenne were not given title to their land, which adjoined the Lakota land. Instead, they were assigned a territory, together with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho, between the North Fork of the Platte River and the Arkansas River in the south. This treaty gave the Lakota rights to the Black Hills and other land that was inhabited by the Northern Cheyenne, thus provoking the dispute over the Black Hills between these nations.

Drawing the boundaries of territories assigned to the Native nations made it possible for the United States to negotiate with specific nations to secure land cessions from them. In the long run, the treaty contributed to the ultimate loss of almost all Native land involved, which was eventually opened up for settlement by European Americans. Temporary peace, secured by the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1851, enabled many settlers to cross the plains and populate what are today the states of Oregon and California. The fact that, in an effort to secure better control over Native nations, they were made responsible for any crimes committed within their territories led to many accusations, although not always correct ones. A treaty originally written to assure peace and to serve as a cost-effective alternative to war fueled disputes, leading ultimately to the Indian Wars and the subsequent decimation of Native populations.

Antonie Dvorakova

Further Reading
Berthrong, Donald J. The Southern Cheyennes. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963; Kappler, Charles Joseph, ed. Indian Treaties, 1778–1883. New York: Interland, 1972; Stands In Timber, John, and Margot Liberty. Cheyenne Memories. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1998.

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