Minnesota Humanities Center

Treaties Matter

Posted April 11, 2019

This post originally appeared on the East Side Freedom Library blog as they hosted the “Why Treaties Matter: Self-Government in the Dakota and Ojibwe Nations” exhibit. It is reprinted here with permission.

Treaties matter. They matter even if the United States fails to recognize the rights of American Indian tribes guaranteed in treaties. They matter even if many were fraudulently constructed, unilaterally abrogated, and used to justify United States federal policies that included the erasure of whole peoples. They matter because despite genocidal actions taken by the United States against American Indians, tribes persisted. They matter because treaties are legally binding agreements created between nations. Treaties matter because they codify the fact that tribes are sovereign nations.

The history of American Indian treaties with the United States is complicated. While the United States used treaties to justify the taking of land, tribes and legal scholars today have worked to take these weapons the colonizer used and force the federal government to recognize treaties for what they have always been – legal contracts between sovereign equals.

The “Why Treaties Matter” exhibit on display at the East Side Freedom Library offers an introduction to this history, but education about treaties does not stop with the exhibit. If you are seeking to better understand this history, I encourage you to explore the East Side Freedom Library’s collections and treaty book display. Among other useful books, you can find Anton Treuer’s “Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask” and Susan Sleeper-Smith, et. al’s “Why You Can’t Teach United States History Without American Indians.” These books provide solid starts to the diverse history of tribes and answer commonly asked questions about American Indians. If you already have a foundation in American Indian history and wish to learn more about the historic treaty making process, dive into Colin Calloway’s “Pen & Ink Witchcraft: Treaties and Treaty Making in American Indian History.”

However, American Indian sovereignty inherent in the treaty-making process cannot and should not be limited by western legal understandings. For many American Indian tribes the concept of sovereignty extends beyond legalistic definition towards a concept of Peoplehood, an idea that sovereignty is based on relationships, particularly those of kinship. Thus even the relationships described in treaties are often understood by tribes to be more complicated and nuanced than Euro-American transactional understandings of treaties. To better understand this more encompassing view of American Indian sovereignty it is critical to engage with sources written by Native authors and historians like William Warren’s “History of the Ojibway People” and Charles Eastman’s “Indian Boyhood.” These, too, can be found at the ESFL.

Treaties matter and acknowledging that they matter is only a first step towards renewed, authentic, relationship building. For too long individuals, states, and the federal government have acted like they do not matter. Acknowledging this history of treaty making is an initial step in a longer process of restorative justice and process of wrestling with the questions of settler colonialism.

Waziyatawin’s “What Does Justice Look Like?: The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland” provides a framework for these discussions while directly confronting the history of American Indian and Euro-American Minnesota history.

Of course, the conversation does not end at the East Side Freedom Library or its collections. Interested readers can access a suggested bibliography of works that can be found at the ESFL, local public library, local bookstores and online.

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Jacob Jurss Headshot
By: Jacob Jurss

Jacob Jurss has a Ph.D. in History from Michigan State University and serves as a Community Faculty member at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul.