Plains Folk

Honoring Treaties


In the twenty-first century it can be difficult to navigate the history we have inherited from the nineteenth. Periodically since 1927, for instance, the community of Medicine Lodge, Kansas, has organized the Medicine Lodge Peace Treaty Pageant. It commemorates the Indian peace treaty of 1867.


There is a lot of other hoopla around the peace treaty pageant, some of which could be seen as out of line with the values of native peoples. The powwow, with Kiowa Gourd Clan participation, and the ranch rodeo, those are solid elements. The pageant’s portrayal of historical events could raise controversy, but will not, so long as there is native buy-in.


You see, it is possible to react to such an event as the Medicine Lodge Peace Treaty in a way that is intended to be sensitive but in fact misses the point. For more than a generation now—perhaps since publication of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, in 1970—the settler society of the Great Plains has embraced regret for the wrongs done to the region’s native peoples. Peace treaties, we commonly have assumed, were documents of tragedy, settlements imposed by white oppressors on native peoples.


Now comes the historian Colin Calloway, author of Pen and Ink Witchcraft: Treaties and Treaty Making in American Indian History, published by Oxford University Press. This is a wide-ranging and perceptive history, setting treaties with the tribes into context, focusing now and then on particular ones. The three treaties of focus are Fort Stanwix, 1768, by which Great Britain adjusted its American frontiers with the Six Nations, or Iroquois; New Echota, 1835, which set the Cherokees onto the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma; and Medicine Lodge, 1867, by which a peace treaty commission sought to settle territorial affairs on the southern plains.


Some scholars have objected that instead of Medicine Lodge, the Treaty of Fort Laramie, 1868, should have been Calloway’s focus, for a key treaty from the Great Plains. The truth is Medicine Lodge and Fort Laramie were similar measures negotiated for different parts of the Great Plains. The point of each was to establish definite reservations for the tribes, onto which they were to go in the near future—as soon as free-roaming bison became insufficient to justify the chase.


These treaties sanctioned the end of a way of life as it was known for the plains tribes; they are indeed documents of tragedy. A funny thing happened, however, generations downstream from the treaties and from the reservation system they set up. Pressures of white settlement kept gnawing away at the tribes’ land base, despite the solemn promises made in 1867 and 1868, but the treaties themselves survived.


The treaties became the basis for the re-establishment of a degree of sovereignty for native peoples in the twentieth century. They also were the grounds by which the tribes sought compensation for lands taken from them contrary to treaty. The treaties are living documents.


“Indian treaties remain the law of the land,” Calloway writes. “Treaties that functioned so often to separate Native peoples from their lands and cultures also established Native rights and recognized tribal sovereignty.” The very documents accepted begrudgingly by the chiefs of 1867-68 are now defended doggedly by their descendants. As I indicated in a previous column, respect for treaty provisions is best for all of us. Every land title on the plains rests on a negotiated treaty.


These are not matters to be taken lightly.

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