Why Should You Care If Indian Treaties Have Been Violated?

by Rick McBride

A treaty is a compact, Of agreement, between two or more independent nations with a view to the public welfare (Black's Law Dictionary). Perhaps those we are most familiar with are treaties to end war or to establish or refine trade arrangements. The U.S. Constitution gives the President authority to make treaties with other nations, "... by and with the advice and consent of the Senate..." The Constitution makes no distinction between nations.

Treaties are seldom made between powers of equal strength. In the fledgling days of this Republic, the various Indian Nations were a formidable rival of the Colonial Militias and subsequent U.S. military, evidenced by the outcome of skirmishes and wars spanning the 1700s through the late 1 800s. Some 400 treaties have been made between the two cultures. Many of these agreements were negotiated with Indian leaders who lacked the authority among their people to commit their nations. Bribery, alcohol, fraud, and trickery riddle the history of treaties between the parties, and produced agreements any modern Court outside of the U.S. or its control would likely rule unenforceable. It may be historically correct that the majority of lands acquired from the Indians by the U.S. were purchased, but the fairness of these acquisitions is suspect. What can be documented is the steady disintegration of respect for Native Americans as U.S. military power grew stronger. Eventually, the U.S simply assumed authority over First Nations as it pressed to divide them, remove them, destroy them, or assimilate them: First Nations became vassal states in a suzerain relationship with the U.S. (Today, there is a movement afoot among several Indian nations to reclaim sovereignty, but that is a complex issue that will take decades to resolve and is beyond the scope of this brief essay.)

On March 3, 1871, the Indian Department Appropriations Act (IDAA) was ratified, which terminated the treaty making process: "Provided, that hereafter no Indian nation or tribe within the territory of the United States shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation, tribe, or power with whom the United States may contract by treaty..." Not only was the option of creating treaties prohibited, recognition of native nations as independent was conveniently and unilaterally disposed of. Imagine the U.S. Congress making a law that said "Russia, China, Australia, England, France, Germany, and Spain are no longer acknowledged or recognized as independent nations." This might have some effect on U.S. citizens regarding trade and travel, for instance, but would it cause these nations to suddenly lose their sovereignty? Not likely. Yet that is exactly what happened in the instance of the Indian nations. Not because of these laws, either. It happened because of the superior military power of the U.S. and its predilection to use it.

Treaties with Indian nations were little more than elaborate land contracts, especially when the impact of other laws, regulations, abrogation, abandonment, or other breeches by the U.S. are taken into account. Agreements with Native Americans subsequent to the IDAA of 1871 may have been dressed up to look like treaties, but they were actually statute laws or bureaucratic regulations.

I see no way restitution can be made sufficient to offset the egregious treatment Indians have endured at the hands of the dominant culture. Especially since it continues to this day, two quick examples being S. 1973, The Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act, and the Department of Interior/Bureau of Indian Affairs "misplacement" (total disappearance) of some five and a half billion dollars ($5,500,000,000) of money held in "trust" for Indians. However, it is our responsibility to cause the government to reverse its negative attitude and continued rapacious acts against First Nations. Truth is, we can't leave history at the doorstep of the government: It simply carried Out the will of a burgeoning population greedy for land. "But that's not so now," you say. "Today, it carries out the agenda of big money." True enough. But who of us speaks to that? Who has dared put their livelihood, life-style, personal comfort and freedom on the line to set things right? Precious few.

Consider the pervasiveness and intensity of the racism African Americans have suffered and where it comes from. Where does all the rhetoric and violence Originate that would curtail women's rights regarding their own bodies? And who benefits from the actions of Peabody Coal, or giveaway "leases" of public lands to foreign gold mining interests? So-called democratic governments and their policies generally reflect the populations they serve. Well, that's supposed to be how it is, anyway. The reality is that our government, and quite probably all other democracies, carry out a tricky combination of the wishes of the few economically powerful and just enough economic salve to keep the rest of the population from revolution. In other words, the government brings into form what is man dated by the culture it is paid to protect to achieve order. It's the quality of that order and at whose expense I question.

The laws eliminating segregation did not show up on the books until those who held power in our country demanded it; not the traditionally disempowered and not a minute before. Racial bigotry, ethnic prejudice, religious intolerance, poverty, usurious interest rates, et cetera, are all acts of violence, no matter how politely they are carried out. Changing these is a matter of raising awareness (and consciousness) and it comes down to each individual: Do I participate in the injustice, default to it by ignoring it, or try to make positive change through proactive involvement?

Remember the old saying, "Someone who gossips with you will gossip about you?" Maybe we could modify that to: A government that betrays an agreement with another, will betray one with you. It's especially corrupt when that government tries to project moral perfection and fairness onto the rest of the world. Any agency of power, legitimate or otherwise, that is capable of treating whole nations the way the U.S. has treated Indians, has proved it has the capacity and willingness to do so when it suits its purposes. Sitting idly by is no longer acceptable. Think about it.

Copyright (c) 2000 by Rick McBride. All right reserved.

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