Plains Folk

Peace Treaties


Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading about treaties, particularly Indian treaties on the Great Plains. There are dozens of them, of course, but certain ones are landmarks. On the southern plains, the Treaty of Medicine Lodge, 1867—subject of close examination in a fine new book by Colin Calloway entitled Pen and Ink Witchcraft: Treaties and Treaty Making in American Indian History. On the northern plains, the treaties of Fort Laramie, 1851 and 1868. These have come under intense scrutiny lately on account of legal issues around the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.

Looking back over the history of treaty-making in this country, we (historians and the public together) have developed a couple of ways of explaining why Indians signed historic treaties that appear to sacrifice their interests. The first explanation is a combination of manipulation and deceit. White negotiators divided to conquer, bought off key participants, made false promises. This is most certainly true of many early Indian treaties, but not so much for the major treaties on the Great Plains.

Here, over the past half-century or so, we often have asserted that Indian signatories in the past were snookered, that they didn’t know what they were signing. Sometimes, too, there were difficulties with translation. The problem with this sort of explanation, born in the desire to represent Indians as victims, is that it portrays Indian leaders as stupid, or at least naïve. Well, read the transcripts. They understood what was happening.

Here, then, is how I have come to understand the treaty-making process on the plains. In mid-nineteenth century, it was a no-country-for-old-men situation on the prairies. Death was always close; creative destruction, and just plain destruction, were rampant. People, especially the native people, needed to breathe. They needed to stop the bleeding. So they chose to sign treaties.

I would say similar motives, just not so compelling, animated the white signatories. They might have preferred just to roll over the country in outright conquest, but the cost was too high. Treaties, to some extent, settled the situation so that life could go on.

Which it did, with far greater satisfaction to the settler society than to the native. Treaties may not be just, but they have pretty much kept the peace for a century and a half. They also have provided some opportunity for native peoples to redress historic injustices. It looks to me like whenever we have had serious unrest in Indian Country, it has come because governments or companies have failed to respect treaties duly agreed to.

When treaties seem inconvenient to interested parties, they are inclined to say, those are just old documents, out of date, times have changed, get over it. Old documents, times have changed—the same can be said of the Bible, or the United States Constitution. A deal is a deal.

Now, from the point of view of the settler society, and my own point of view as a landowner in two prairie states—treaties are fundamentally important to all of us. At the top of every abstract of title in the country is some transaction by which land was conveyed from the United States government. Now how, pray tell, did the federal government get title to convey to any one of else? By a treaty with some Indian tribe.

Throw out the treaties, and your title is worthless. It’s no country for old men all over again. Speaking for the settler society, and as an old man, I’m going to stick with the deals we have, thanks.

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