American Indian Treaties in 1816

A treaty is simply an agreement between two or more sovereign nations. Following the Constitution, the United States recognized Indian nations as sovereign entities and thus negotiated treaties with them. From the viewpoint of American law, there are three basic steps involved in the treaty process: (1) the treaty is negotiated, (2) it is then ratified by the Senate, and (3) it is proclaimed (signed) by the President. At this time, the treaty is considered to be in force and is a law which is superior to that of local or state laws.

In 1816, the primary focus of the treaties between Indian nations and the United States was for the United States to obtain title to Indian land. Briefly described below are some of the 1816 treaties.


In Washington, D.C., a Cherokee delegation including Major Ridge, Richard Brown, Cheucunsenee, John Walker, John Lowry, Richard Taylor, and John Ross, met with U.S. government officials to request compensations for damages done by American soldiers going through the Cherokee Nation at the end of the Creek war. However, the delegation was persuaded to sell their South Carolina land for $5,000. The United States, however, agreed to recognize the Cherokee claim to four million acres of land in Georgia and Alabama that had been taken from the Creek. Under the agreement, government troops would help evict illegal settlers.

The Cherokee delegation met with President James Madison in the Octagon House which was serving as the President’s residence while the fire-gutted White House underwent renovations. In his book Toward the Setting Sun: John Ross, the Cherokees, and the Trail of Tears, Brian Hicks reports:

“For the entirety of the short meeting, the president did all the talking. He promised the Indians that any of their tribesmen permanently disabled in the war would receive the same pension benefits as white soldiers, and he assured them the government would pay for the damage done by troops to the Cherokee Nation—‘as much as what is right.’”

General Andrew Jackson was furious with the new treaty and met with a group of Cherokee chiefs under the leadership of Toochalar in Alabama. Journalist Stanley Hoig, in his book The Cherokees and Their Chiefs: In the Wake of Empire, reports:

“Unable to persuade the Cherokees to give up valuable portions of their land south of the Tennessee River, Jackson turned to the tried-and-true method of bribery of the chiefs and interpreters.”

Those accepting bribes included Glass, Boat, Sour Mush, Chulioa, Dick Justice, Richard Brown, and Chickasautchee. As a result, the Cherokee gave up most of the land gained in the previous treaty for an annual payment of $5,000 for ten years. Among those signing the treaty was Sequoia. Path Killer, the Cherokee principal chief, was not present.

In her book The Cherokees, Grace Steele Woodward reports:

“To protect themselves from the wrath of the council, the delegation of twelve who signed the treaty with Jackson did so with the understanding that the Cherokee National Council must ratify it before it became final.”


In Wisconsin, a delegation of 11 Winnebago chiefs, including Naw-Kaw and Spoon Decora traveled to St. Louis, Missouri to sign a treaty of peace and friendship with the United States. Anthropologist Nancy Lurie, in an entry in Handbook of North American Indians, reports:

“Although these Winnebagos made clear that they represented only their own Wisconsin River village, the fact that Naw-Kaw made the overture indicated the official direction of tribal policy.”


In Illinois, the Americans met with the Sauk in treaty council. The Americans accused the Sauk of many crimes committed during the War of 1812, but the Sauk chiefs told the Americans that they had been deceived by the Americans and thus had been forced to join forces with the British. They smoked the peace pipe with the Americans and signed the treaty. In the words of Black Hawk:

“Here, for the first time, I touched the goose quill to the treaty — not knowing, however, that, by that act, I consented to give away my village. Had that been explained to me, I should have opposed it, and never would have signed their treaty.”


In Mississippi, the United States negotiated a new treaty with the Choctaw to settle some boundary difficulties arising from the end of the Creek war. The treaty negotiations were friendly. In his book The Removal of the Choctaw Indians, Arthur DeRosier reports:

“The Choctaws also were promised that they would always be the friend of America and that never again would the United States allow them to be mistreated.”


In the southeast, the Chickasaw ceded all of their territory south of the Tennessee River and west of the Tombigbee River to the United States.

The 1837 Winnebago Treaty

During the first part of the nineteenth century, the American Indian policy was to remove Indians from east of the Mississippi River and to “give” them reservations in Indian Territory. Under the U.S. Constitution, Indian tribes were considered to be domestic dependent nations which meant that the federal government had to negotiate treaties with them.

A treaty is simply an agreement between two or more sovereign nations. Following the Constitution, the United States recognized Indian nations as sovereign entities and thus negotiated treaties with them. From the viewpoint of American law, there are three basic steps involved in the treaty process: (1) the treaty is negotiated, (2) it is then ratified by the Senate, and (3) it is proclaimed (signed) by the President. At this time, the treaty is considered to be in force and is a law which is superior to that of local or state laws.

In negotiating treaties with Indian nations, the Americans viewed the treaties, and the Indians themselves, as being temporary. “Knowing” that Indians were destined to vanish, the Americans generally viewed treaties as a way of increasing the pace of assimilation and the destruction of Indian cultures.

Treaties were negotiated for many different reasons. In addition to establishing peace, and thus preventing war, the United States negotiated treaties to obtain land. The United States frequently gave voice to the idea that no Indian land was to be taken without the consent of the Indians. At the same time, the United States had a policy of recognizing Indian leaders who were favorable to land cession and who were willing to accept bribes.

Winnebago Background:

 In 1634, the French explorer Jean Nicolet encountered the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) living along the Door Peninsula on Lake Michigan in what is now Wisconsin. According to Winnebago oral tradition, this was their original home. Like the other Indian nations in the western Great Lakes region, the Winnebago at this time were a farming people who lived in villages. Like many other Indian nations, they did not live in tipis, but in rectangular pole-framed houses covered with bark. For subsistence, they grew corn (maize), beans, and squash. They raised tobacco for ceremonial use.

The Winnebago’s initial contacts with Europeans were with fur traders and missionaries. Then, in the nineteenth century, came the Americans. The first treaty with the Winnebago occurred in 1816 when a delegation of 11 Winnebago chiefs, including Naw-Kaw and Spoon Decora travelled to St. Louis, Missouri to sign a treaty of peace and friendship with the United States.

The Treaty of 1837:

The road to the Winnebago Treaty of 1837 began in 1830 at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Here the United States negotiators met in treaty council with several tribes: Sioux (Sisseton, Wahpeton, and Medawakonton), Iowa, Menominee, Winnebago, Omaha, Otoe-Missouria, Sauk, and Fox. Tribal leaders signed a treaty which gave the United States most of what is now Iowa, Missouri, and Minnesota. During the council, the Americans told the Indians that it is time to bury the war tomahawk deep in the earth or face the U.S. army. The threat of war and genocide was not even thinly veiled. William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) assured the chiefs:  “we didn’t purchase those lands with a view to settle the white people on them.”  This was, in reality, the beginning of non-Indian settlement in the region.

Two years later, in 1832, the United States met with the Winnebago and as a result the Winnebago agreed to give up their lands east of the Mississippi and to move to Neutral Ground in Iowa. They were to receive $10,000 per year for 27 years for their lands.

As with other removals in which Indian nations were verbally told that their new lands would be theirs forever, American greed tended to be impatient. In 1837, the United States imposed a new treaty on the Winnebago nation. This new treaty confirmed the Winnebago land cessions in Wisconsin and reduced the size of the Neutral Ground. The Winnebago treaty delegation had gone to Washington, D.C. to meet with the President to plead for their lands. Instead, they were told that they could not return home until they had signed the new treaty which gave their lands away. This was an effective negotiating practice often used by the United States.

Under Winnebago protocol, treaty signers in matters pertaining to land must include a significant representation of leaders of the Bear clan, which was lacking in the Washington delegation. Anthropologist Nancy Lurie, writing in the Handbook of North American Indians, reports:  “To make sure no land would be sold, the tribe sent 20 men who had no authority to sign a treaty of cession.”

Two respected civil chiefs—Kar-i-mo-nee and Big Boat Decora—led the delegation of mostly younger men.

In Washington, the Winnebago were promised that they would have 8 years to move and the members of the treaty delegation hoped that by then they would be able to negotiate a new treaty. However, the actual treaty required that they move in 8 months. The interpreter had been directed to deceive the delegation into thinking that they had 8 years. The Governor of Wisconsin had informed Washington that if the federal government did not remove the Winnebago, he would raise a state militia to forcibly remove them.

The treaty created a permanent division in the Winnebago. One group under the leadership of Kar-i-mo-nee and Big Boat Decora abided by the treaty and the other group under the leadership of Yellow Thunder and Dandy hid out in central Wisconsin.

A Chippewa Treaty

A treaty is an agreement between two or more sovereign nations. Under the U.S. Constitution and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution, Indian tribes are legally considered to be nations. During the nineteenth century, the United States government negotiated a number of treaties with Indian nations. While often called “peace treaties,” these treaties were not about ending wars and often they were negotiated with Indian nations considered American allies. While the treaties proclaimed eternal peace between the Indians and the United States, the real purpose of the treaties was to obtain land which could then be given to non-Indian settlers.

In negotiating Indian treaties, American negotiators usually showed great ignorance about American Indian governments and often failed to recognize what really constituted a sovereign nation and what did not.  Since they preferred to deal with fewer tribes, they arbitrarily grouped sovereign entities together and unilaterally declared them to be a single nation. They also preferred to deal with dictatorships rather than democracies and preferred to support and create dictatorships.

In 1837, some 1,200 Chippewa gathered for a treaty conference with the United States in Minnesota. Under the proposed treaty—proposed by the United States, not the Chippewa—the Chippewa were to give up their claim to the St. Croix Valley of Minnesota and their rights to much of northwestern Wisconsin.

The area in question had been over-hunted thus its value to the Chippewa had been reduced.  In addition, the ongoing war between the Chippewa and the Sioux, which had resulted in many Sioux bands migrating out into the Great Plains of the Dakotas, had made the area dangerous for Chippewa hunters.

In exchange for the ceded lands, the Chippewa were to receive annually for 20 years: $9,500 in cash, $19,000 in goods, $3,000 for a blacksmith, $1,000 for farmers, $2,000 in provisions, and $500 in tobacco. In addition, $70,000 was to be paid to traders to “liquidate certain claims against the Indians” and $100,000 to be paid to “the half-breeds of the Chippewa nation.” Chief Flat Mouth protested the payment to the traders arguing that many of the debtors had been killed by the Sioux while on excursions for the traders. He also pointed out that the Americans had taken fish from the lakes and streams and had harvested timber from the woods without paying the Indians. For the United States, however, corporate interests such as those of the trading companies also outweighed any concern for individual interests.

The Treaty with the Chippewa states:  “The privilege of hunting, fishing, and gathering the wild rice, upon the lands, the rivers and the lakes included in the territory ceded, is guaranteed to the Indians, during the pleasure of the President of the United States.”

Chiefs Hole-in-the-Day and La Trappe expressed some concerns about their rights. La Trappe told the Americans: “We wish to hold on to a tree where we get our living, & to reserve the streams where we drink the waters that give us life”

In the treaty, there was no distinction between the various bands. The treaty ignored the political reality of the Chippewa – that they were not a single nation, but are several autonomous bands – and referred to them as a single nation.

The Navajo and Mexico

In 1821 Mexico obtained independence from Spain. In the Plan of Iguala, Mexico did away with all legal distinctions regarding Indians and reaffirmed that Indians were citizens of Mexico on an equal basis with non-Indians. In what is now New Mexico and Arizona, this means that the various Navajo bands now had to deal with the Mexican government rather than the Spanish government.  

The Navajo were not a unified nation with regard to government. There was no single unified, central government or council: there were dozens of local groups. The basis of traditional Navajo government was kinship. People of experience and wisdom (known as nataani) led the family, band, and clan groups. Each group was autonomous and chose its own leaders by consensus.

In 1822, the newly formed Mexican government negotiated its first treaty with the Navajo. Under the treaty, Segundo was recognized by the Mexican government as the head chief of the Navajo. Since the Navajo did not traditionally have a head chief, it is doubtful that most Navajo recognized him as head chief. The treaty called for an exchange of prisoners and the freedom of the Navajo to travel and trade throughout New Mexico.

Shortly after negotiating its first Navajo treaty, the Mexican government appointed a new governor who ignored the treaty. The new governor sent the Navajo an ultimatum to return all prisoners, to convert to Catholicism, and to resettle in villages around the missions. The new governor seemed unaware that the previous attempts by the Spanish to convert the Navajo and have them settle around the missions had failed.

In 1823, the Mexicans negotiated another treaty with the Navajo. The treaty was signed by two Navajo captains – Batolome Baca and Juan Antonio Sandoval. The treaty required: (1) the Navajo to hand over all prisoners, (2) Navajo prisoners held by Mexico were to be returned unless they wanted to become Christians, (3) the Navajo were to return all stolen goods, and (4) the Navajo were to accept Christianity and settle in pueblos. The peace established by the treaty, according to Navajo oral tradition, was violated before the ink was dry.

In 1824, the Mexican government sent a military campaign through Navajo territory in an attempt to subdue them. Following this campaign, the Mexican government negotiated a treaty with the Navajo that called for a mutual exchange of prisoners. Even though Mexican law prohibited slavery, the use of Indian slaves was common.

For the next decade there was little formal or official contact between the Navajo and the Mexican government. This did not mean there was peace between the Navajo and the Mexican settlers who had invaded Navajo territory. Skirmishes between the two groups were common.

In 1835, a group of Mexican ranchers together with a troop of Mexican soldiers invaded Navajo territory intent on destroying their fields, burning their hogans, killing or scattering their herds, and killing as many Navajo as possible. The Mexicans did not expect the any resistance from the Navaho as they had assumed they would be divided into small groups of raiders who could never make a stand against such a large force. However, the Navajo assembled 200 warriors under the leadership of Narbona. Most were armed with bows and iron-tipped arrows and all were mounted on swift horses. At the Big Bend of the Río Chaco the Navajo ambushed the Mexican force. The Navajo victory was swift and easy. Narbona allowed the Mexican survivors to retreat, taking their dead and wounded with them.

In retaliation for the Navajo victory, the Mexican army marched against the Navajo the following year. Hearing that the Zuni were allied with the Navajo, the Mexican army arrived at the Pueblo of Zuni to find that the Zuni were not allied with the Navajo. The Zuni turned over two Navajo prisoners.

In 1839, the Mexican authorities negotiated another treaty of peace with the Navajo but the Navajo did not care for the agreement and soon started raiding again. This was the last Mexican attempt at negotiating a treaty with the Navajo. In 1846, the United States acquired New Mexico and, under the Doctrine of Discovery, the right to govern the Indian nations within the territory.

Curtis Navajo


Breaking Treaties

A treaty is an agreement between two or more sovereign nations. Under the U.S. Constitution, Indian tribes are considered sovereign nations-or as dependent domestic nations, in the words of the Supreme Court-and thus the United States negotiated treaties with the tribes in order to obtain title to Indian land and open Indian lands to non-Indian settlement.

Following the Civil War, Congress authorized the formation of a Peace Commission composed of three generals and four civilians to negotiate a series of treaties with the Indian nations. The Peace Commission sought to have the Indian nations settle on reservations away from the railroads and American settlements. These reservations were to be large enough to allow the Indians to continue to support themselves with hunting, but as they became more proficient as farmers, the size of the reservations was to be reduced. The government was also to provide the Indians with missionary instruction in Christianity. As a Christian nation, the United States felt that it had an obligation to convert Indians to Christianity and to prohibit aboriginal pagan religions.  

The Treaty:

In 1867, 4,000 Indians representing the Comanche, the Kiowa, the Kiowa-Apache, the Southern Cheyenne, and the Arapaho met with the United States Peace Commission at Medicine Lodge Creek, Kansas. Three treaties were negotiated with the tribes. The Americans wanted the tribes to agree to a reservation in Indian Territory and to surrender their own land claims.

Gifts for the Indians were stacked in dazzling piles. These included bushel baskets of glass beads, trinkets, knives, and surplus items from the Civil War. The surplus items included uniforms, blankets, and bugles. The Indians were allowed to look at the gifts but they could not touch them. The American strategy regarding gifts was simple: no treaty, no gifts.

Speaking for the Kiowa were Satank, Stumbling Bear, and Satanta. Ten Bears and Little Horn spoke for the Comanche, and Wolf’s Sleeve and Brave Man represented the Kiowa-Apache.  

Kiowa leader Satanta told the Commission that he did not want to give any land away. He told them:

“I love the land, the buffalo and will not part with it. I don’t want any of the medicine lodges (churches) within the country.”

Satanta also told them:

“A long time ago this land belonged to our fathers, but when I go up to the river, I see a camp of soldiers, and they are cutting my wood down or killing my buffalo. I don’t like that, and when I see that, my heart feels like bursting with sorrow.”

Newspaper reporter Henry Stanley, who was observing the council for the Daily Missouri Democrat, reported:

“Satanta’s speech produced a rather blank look upon the faces of the peace commissioners.”

Ten Bears told the Commission:

“There is one thing which is not good in your speeches; that is, building us medicine houses.”

Communication at the council was a bit of a problem as not all of the translators are fluent in the native languages and part of the communication had to be done through sign language. In some instances, the translation went from English to Comanche via a translator who mumbled and then from Comanche to Kiowa with the resulting loss of a great deal of meaning. The Indian leaders probably understood little with regard to the nuances and legal ramifications of the treaty, but there were gifts, food, and pageantry.

Following the treaty signing, gifts were distributed to the Indians. Included in the gifts were some pistols of unknown manufacture. Each of these pistols exploded the first time they were fired. The shoddy pistols were, perhaps, a warning of things to come.

According to the treaties, annuities were to be paid to the tribes for 30 years. Annuity payments were to consist of one suit of woolen clothing for every male person and flannel, cloth, or calico for every female. An additional $25,000 in goods was to be spent as the Indian Service deemed necessary.

Under Article 12, further cessions of land could be made only with the consent of three-fourths of the male adult Indians.

The Jerome Commission:

In 1892, a commission headed by David H. Jerome (thus known as the Jerome Commission) obtained signed agreements with several Oklahoma tribes to obtain 15 million acres of land in an area known as the Cherokee Outlet. While the majority of the Indians opposed the land cessions, the Americans simply ignored their concerns and used a combination of lies, bribes, threats, and forgeries to obtain the agreements.

In the meeting with the Kiowa, Jerome explained that the United States wanted nothing from the Indians except to give them something more valuable than land: money. With regard to the actual amount of money, the commissioners avoided giving any details. Under the Jerome Commission agreement, the Kiowa would actually receive about $25 per person to sell the land, as compared with $33 for leasing the land.

To obtain the correct number of Kiowa signatures for the agreement, the government ordered Kiowa Indian soldiers to put their mark to the paper. Other signatures were simply forged. When confronted about this, Jerome simply reminded the Kiowa:

“Congress has full control of you, it can do as it is a mind to with you.”

He then threatened the Kiowa leaders with jail and dismissed them.

The agreement with the Kiowa, Comanche, and Plains Apaches was certified to have sufficient signatures to make it valid under the Medicine Lodge Treaty. However, even with the forged signatures, the document is between 21 and 91 signatures short of the number needed.

As Congress discussed the ratification of the new agreements, Indian leaders travelled to Washington, D.C. to protest the agreements and to lobby against ratification. They continually pointed out that the agreement had been made by means of fraud and coercion. Congress, however, ignored the Indian pleas and ratified the agreements.

The Supreme Court:

In Lone Wolf versus Hitchcock the Supreme Court ruled in 1903 that Congress has the authority to break Indian treaties. While the 1867 Treaty of Medicine Lodge provided that no part of the Kiowa-Comanche Reservation could be ceded without the approval of three-fourths of the adult males, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress has the power to abrogate the provisions of the treaty. According to the Court:

“The power exists to abrogate the provisions of an Indian treaty, though presumably such power will be exercised only when circumstances arise which will not only justify the government in disregarding the stipulations of the treaty, but may demand, in the interest of the country and the Indians themselves, that it should do so.”

In this ruling, the Court removed tribal consent as a factor in the efforts of the United States to acquire more Indian lands.

In the case, the Indians argued that the agreement to sell their land had been obtained by fraud and that it did not have the requisite number of signatures as required by their treaty with the United States. The Court rejected these arguments in favor of near absolute federal power with regard to Indian affairs. Federal power, according to the Court, should be tempered by

“considerations of justice as would control a Christian people in their treatment of an ignorant and dependent race.”

For politicians in the western states, the Court’s ruling sent a clear message that they could use whatever means they wanted to dispossess the Indians of their land.

American Lies and the Treaty of Fort Laramie

By the mid-nineteenth century, the American obsession with private property was guiding policies regarding American Indians. The idea that Indian people held property-that is, land-in common rather than having individuals own it, was repulsive to Americans. In 1850, the policy of “civilizing” Indians was described this way by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs:

“When civilization and barbarism are brought into such relation that they cannot coexist together, it is right that the superiority of the former should be asserted and the latter compelled to give away. It is, therefore, no matter of regret or reproach that so large a portion of our territory has been wrested from its aboriginal inhabitants and made the happy abode of an enlightened and Christian people.”

The following year, the Secretary of the Interior (that is, the top U.S. official in charge of Indian Affairs) stated:

“You must tie him down to the soil. You must make him understand the value of property and the benefits of its separate ownership. You must appeal to those selfish principles implanted by Divine Providence in the nature of man for the wisest purposes and make them minister to civilization and refinement.”


From an American viewpoint, civilization means that some individuals must be allowed, actually encouraged, to accumulate more wealth and power than others. The egalitarian nature of most Indian societies and common land ownership, therefore, stood in the way of progress, and in the ability of non-Indians to “legally” obtain Indian land.

In 1851, the United States called a treaty council with the Indian nations of the Northern Plains at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Attending this council were the Sioux (though records fail to note which Sioux tribes participated and the Americans seem unaware or unconcerned that there is no single Sioux nation), Cheyenne, Arapaho, Shoshone, Crow, Assiniboine, Arikara, Gros Ventre, Mandan, and Hidatsa nations. An estimated 8,000 – 12,000 Indians gathered for this council.

One of the events of the council was the spectacular entry of the Crow into the council grounds. Riding on painted horses, singing their war songs, with chiefs Big Robber and Mountain Tail holding their ceremonial pipes like royal scepters, they rode into the crowd of Indians who had already gathered.

The purpose of the council and of the resulting treaty was to establish peace between the United States and the tribes, including a promise to protect Indians from European-Americans, and to stop the tribes from making war with one another. One of the major reasons, from the perspective of the United States, for obtaining peace agreements was that there was a growing stream of American emigrants travelling west on the Oregon trail to settle on Indian lands farther west.

After passing the pipe, D.D. Mitchell told the chiefs:

“We do not want your lands, horses, robes, nor anything you have; but we come to advise with you, and make a treaty with you for your own good.”

This was simply one of many lies the Americans told during the council. The Americans also arrogantly assumed that they had the right, as a Christian nation, to govern Indian nations.

Americans have traditionally been reluctant to deal with democracies, preferring instead to deal with dictatorships. At the Fort Laramie Treaty Council, each tribe was asked to provide a single chief of the whole nation. After council with his people, chief Terra Blue of the Brulé (one of the Sioux tribes), said:

“we have decided differently from you, Father, about this Chief for the nation. We want a Chief for each band.”

The use of the word “band” is, perhaps, a poor translation into English of the Sioux political organization as it actually referred to a sovereign, independent, political entity. Mitchell responded to this request by selecting a single chief-Frightening Bear–to represent the entire Sioux nation. Thus the United States attempted to create not only a dictator, but also a fictitious “nation” to go with it.  What the Americans considered to be the Sioux nation was actually several distinct nations.

The Arapaho selected Little Owl and Cut Nose to sign the treaty and Little Owl was designated as head chief. The Cheyenne had difficulty in selecting a head chief, but finally selected the keeper of the sacred arrows, He Who Walks with Toes Turned Out. He Who Walks with Toes Turned Out was not particularly well-known for his leadership ability, nor was he skilled in dealings with the Americans.

The Americans designated Crazy Bear to the position of Assiniboine tribal chief. As with the Sioux, there were actually several independent Assiniboine groups, a fact ignored by the Americans. Negotiating the treaty with Crazy Bear is First Fly (also known as The First Who Flies).

The Americans provided each of the head chiefs with a full major-general’s uniform. In addition, the chiefs were delegated to distribute the goods issued by the federal government. The goods given to the chiefs to distribute to their people at the council included tobacco, serge, vermillion, blankets, knives, beads, sugar, and coffee. By having the chiefs, most of whom were chosen by the United States, in charge of the distribution of goods, the Americans hoped to build the power of dictators who would be loyal to American causes rather than tribal causes.

At the Fort Laramie Treaty Council, each tribal area was defined, including an area for the Blackfoot Nation which was not represented at the Council. Defining tribal lands was seen as the first step in being able to acquire title to these lands and thus disposes the Indians.

The Council ignored the participation of the Shoshone and assigned their northeastern hunting range to the Crow.  As there were no River Crow at the Council, the Mountain Crow version of their geographic rights and hunting areas was used and was assumed by the Americans to be binding to all of the Crow tribes.

The Americans also failed to distinguish between the Northern Cheyenne and the Southern Cheyenne and simply grouped both tribes together in the south. The Sioux received the rights to the Black Hills and other lands claimed by the Northern Cheyenne.

Signing the treaty for the Yankton Sioux was Smutty Bear who complained about the destruction of grass and trees by travelers on the Overland Trail and about the subsequent scarcity of game. While this was a major concern for the Indians, it was dismissed as being a minor issue by the Americans. Their focus was on land ownership with no concern about environmental degradation.

The treaties which the Indian chiefs signed called for annuities to be paid to the Indian nations for 50 years. However, while the treaties were viewed as binding upon the Indian nations immediately upon signing, they were not binding on the United States until they had been ratified by the Senate. The Senate, annoyed by the idea of paying Indians so much money for their land, simply changed the terms of the treaty from 50 years to 10 years with the right to continue the annuities for an additional 5 years at the discretion of the President. The tribes, of course, were not consulted nor even notified of this change. Writing in 1881, Helen Hunt Jackson opined:

“To comment on the bad faith of this action on the part of Congress would be a waste of words; but its impolicy is too glaring that one’s astonishment cannot keep silent-its impolicy and also its incredible niggardliness.”

The act of unilaterally changing an agreement which had been understood to have been final was a clear signal to the Indians that the word of those representing the United States was not to be trusted. Some Indian leaders would later indicate that all words spoken on behalf of the United States should be considered to be lies.

The Puget Sound War

In 1855, concerned about a potential Indian uprising, American settlers in the Puget Sound area of Washington formed four companies of soldiers. One of these companies, Eaton’s Rangers, attempted to apprehend Nisqually chief Leschi. Leschi and his brother Quiemuth were peacefully cultivating their wheat fields when the Rangers moved in. Warned of the Rangers’ approach, Leschi and Quiemuth fled their homes. This action by the Rangers against peaceful Indians started the Puget Sound War. Following this initial incident, the Rangers then roamed the country harassing peaceful Indians.  

Nisqually warriors under the leadership of Leschi attacked the Americans in the White River Valley. They were careful to attack only the American volunteers. They made it known to the American settlers that they were protesting Stevens’ treaties. In the words of one settler:

“The Indians sent us word not to be afraid-that they would not harm us.”

At White River, two American families were warned that the Indians were coming. The families, some of whom were members of the volunteer companies, stayed and were attacked. Nine people were killed, but the warriors took the children-two boys and a girl-and delivered them unharmed to an American steamer at Point Elliot.

The Americans responded to the White River “massacre” by herding 4,000 peaceful Indians to Fox Island so that they could be carefully watched. Many of the captives died from inadequate food and shelter.

Leschi attempted to draw all of the tribes of Western Washington into a general war against the Americans, but his coalition of Nisqually and Puyallup warriors never numbered more than a few hundred.

The Indian tribes in the southwestern portion of the territory were in close communication with Nisqually, Klickatat, and Yakama warriors. While these tribes had no tradition of warfare, but tended to be business-oriented (i.e. traders), the Americans were fearful that they would join the Indian uprisings. Americans with rifles began to raid the peaceful Indian villages, disarming the Indians, and placing them under surveillance. Some of the Indians-Upper and Lower Chehalis-were herded together on Sidney Ford’s farm near Steilacoom; some of the coastal Indians, including the Cowlitz, were placed in a “local reservation” on the Chehalis River; and the Chinook were placed inland at Fort Vancouver. The Indians were crowded together, denied access to adequate food, and stripped of their personal property. The southwestern tribes were held captive for almost two years during the Puget Sound War.

In 1856, Governor Isaac I. Stevens, responding to the Indian war led by Leschi, called for the extermination of all “hostile” Indians. In response to the Governor’s call for extermination, a small group of about 100 Duwamish, Taitnapam, Puyallup, Nisqually, and Suquamish warriors attacked the community of Seattle. The attack resulted in two American deaths and no Indian deaths. Some described it as a “half-hearted” affair.

Encouraged by Stevens’ call for extermination, American volunteers began to hunt down peaceful Indians. At the Nisqually River, the Washington Mounted Rifles under the command of H.J.G. Maxon murdered a group of 30 Indians who had gathered to fish. Nearly all of the Indians were women and children.

Governor Stevens detained people who were opposed to his war against the Indians. When the Chief Justice of the Territory issued a writ of habeas corpus for the release of these opponents, the Governor simply declared martial law:

“Whereas, in the prosecution of the Indian war, circumstances have existed affording such grave cause of suspicion, such that certain evil disposed persons of Pierce county have given aid and comfort to the enemy, that they have been placed under arrest, and ordered to be tried by a military commission; and whereas, efforts are now being made to withdraw, by civil process, these persons from the purview of the said commission.”

With these words, the Governor suspended the functions of all civil officers in the county.

Wishing to put an end to the bloodshed, Leschi sent his brother Quiemuth as an emissary to the Governor to indicate his willingness to surrender. Quiemuth was murdered in the Governor’s office. While the murderer was arrested, he was not brought to trial as none of the Americans would testify against him.

Stevens renewed his calls for the Indian leaders’ heads and offered a reward. In response, Sluggia, Leschi’s nephew, revealed his uncle’s location in exchange for 50 blankets.  Subsequently, Leschi was captured by the Americans.

As a result of this brief war in which the Indian warriors demonstrated impressive powers, the Americans met with the Indians at Fox Island. The Indians told the Americans of their dissatisfaction with the 1855 treaties and the Americans promised to give them larger tracts with ground for horses.

For his leadership in the war against Washington colonists, Nisqually chief Leschi was tried in an American court. Despite testimony that Leschi was seen by reliable witnesses at an entirely different location at the time of the specific crimes of which he was accused and couldn’t have committed them, he was found guilty of murder. In 1858 he was hung.

From the American viewpoint, the trial showed their superiority and authority over the Indians and their sense of fairness. Indians, however, were baffled by the American response to murder. Among the Indian nations of Western Washington, homicides were not viewed as crimes that imperiled the public order. Homicides were seen as injuries to and by individuals and their families. The adjudication of homicide, therefore, involved these families and making restitution for the deaths. This was often called “covering the dead” and involved payments from one family to another. Justice was about healing, not punishment.

The First U.S. Treaties with the Navajo

In 1846, the United States took control of New Mexico and Arizona. The United States Army under the leadership of General Stephen Watts Kearny occupied the territory which had been acquired from Mexico. One of the major priorities of the new regime was to “pacify” the Navajo who had been raiding against the Spanish settlements in the area. However, instead of bringing peace, federal government actions often brought increased warfare. The American army made it clear that they intended to side with the European settlers without examining the causes for the hostilities. The army refused to recognize that the Indians had often been the victims of unfriendly European settlers.  

In an 1846 letter to Indian Commissioner William Mediall, Charles Bent, an Indian trader, described the Navajo as

“an industrious, intelligent and warlike tribe of Indians who cultivate the soil and raise sufficient grain for their own consumption and a variety of fruits.”

He also noted that they manufactured blankets and woolen goods. Other traders during this time observed that Navajo blankets were coveted trade items among other Indians, such as the Cheyenne.  

When the Navajo leader Narbona first heard about the new American regime, he decided to travel to Santa Fe to obtain firsthand information about these new soldiers. He took with him only a few of his older councilors and traveled at night. Near Santa Fe they remained hidden from the soldiers so that they could safely watch the activities without being discovered. After observing the soldiers, they returned home without making any contact with the Americans. On the journey home, all agreed that Navajo warriors would be unable to defeat the American soldiers. They decided that it would be well to establish friendship with the Americans.

The first treaty council between the United States and the Navajo was held to negotiate the Bear Springs (Ojo del Oso) Treaty. Navajo leaders Narbona, Zarzilla (Long Earrings), and José Largo met with an American force of 350 soldiers. The eighty-year-old Narbona was suffering from an attack of influenza and was brought to the council on a litter slung between two horses. As was typical with American negotiations with Indians, the Americans had no concept of Navajo government. The Americans assumed that all people who spoke some dialect of Navajo must belong to a single political entity ruled by an authoritative dictator or monarch. They did not understand that the Navajo were really numerous independent, autonomous bands. Before the American troops had returned to the Rio Grande, the Navajo were again raiding near Albuquerque. These bands, not represented at the council, were unaware of the treaty, and, if they had been aware of it, would not have viewed it as binding them. The Treaty of Bear Springs was never ratified by the U.S. Senate.

In 1848, several Navajo leaders and the United States signed the Newby Treaty. The following year, when it became evident that the treaty was not working, the Americans, under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel John M. Washington, sent an expedition to negotiate another treaty at Canyon de Chelly. While on the way to Canyon de Chelly, the Americans met several Navajo leaders in the Chuska Valley. The Americans held council with Navajo leaders Narbona, Achuletta, and José Largo. The Navajo leaders were asked to attend a council to sign a treaty with the United States. Narbona and José Largo indicated that they would not be able to attend and designated Armijo and Pedro José to attend in their place.

As the Navajo leaders were leaving, there was a dispute over an allegedly stolen horse in which the Americans told them that they must turn over one of the best horses. The skirmish with the Americans resulted in the immediate death of 16 or 17 Navajo, with several others dying later from wounds received in the battle. The elderly chief Narbona was mortally wounded but lived long enough to return to his hogan and say goodbye to his family. Narbona was probably the most respected Navajo leader at this time and had tried valiantly to establish peace between the Navajo and the United States.

In 1849, four Navajo medicine men made the sacred journey to Tohe-ha-glee (Meeting Place of Waters) to consult with the Page of Prophecy. After making the proper offerings, they read the marks in the sand which are the messages from the Holy People. The marks indicated a journey to a distant place. Other marks indicated many burials.

In the same year, the blind Navajo prophet Bineah-uhtin, a medicine man who saw with his mind, attended a War Chant where he came into contact with some young Navajo warriors. He told them:

“The day will come when your enemies will drive you out of your homeland, and you will go to a barren country where the corn will not grow and your sheep will eat poison weeds and die. Many of your people will starve, and others will be killed so that only a few will survive, and in all these wide cornfields there will be nothing alive excepting the coyotes and the crows.”

In 1851, the army established Fort Defiance (called Hell’s Hollow by the soldiers) for the express purpose of subduing the Navajo. While the American Indian agent was encouraging peaceful relations with the Navajo, the military was pushing for confrontation.

Fort Defiance

Congress appropriated $30,000 in 1854 for the purpose of negotiating treaties with the Apache, Navajo, and Ute in New Mexico. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs felt that the solution to the Indian “problem” was to extend the reservation concept into New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.

In 1855, at Laguna Negra, New Mexico, a treaty council was held with the Navajo. About twenty chiefs were in attendance and Zarcillos Largos (Long Earrings) spoke for them. In the midst of the conference Zarcillos Largos told the Americans that he had grown too old to lead his people and he asked the Navajo headmen to select another to speak for him. Manuelito was selected as the new leader. The Americans promised the Navajo a reservation and annuity payments. Twenty-seven Navajo chiefs made their marks on the treaty and received presents. The Senate, balking at the monetary cost, refused to ratify the treaty.

In 1858, Navajo leader Manuelito pastured his horses and cattle in the army hay camp at Fort Defiance. Army troops then slaughtered 48 head of his cattle. The Navajo, in response, killed the black slave of an army officer. This began a new series of wars between the Navajo and the Americans.

In 1858, the American army imposed a new treaty on fifteen Navajo headmen at Fort Defiance. The Americans blamed the Navajo for the conflict and exacted a number of concessions from them. However, neither side was prepared to honor the treaty. Relations continued to deteriorate.

In 1861, a group of Navajo were having a peaceful horse race with soldiers at Fort Fauntleroy when the soldiers massacred 15 Navajo, including women and children. The incident started when the Navajo accused the officers of cheating. As a result, relations with the Navajo become strained and the only Navajo who remained at the post were the mistresses of some of the officers. The commanding officer then sent these women as emissaries to the Navajo. Army officials were willing to exploit the sexual relations between Navajo women and army officers in moments of crisis.

In 1861, a large Navajo war party under the leadership of Manuelito and Barboncito attacked Fort Defiance and nearly overran it.  

In 1863, General Carleton issued an ultimatum to the Navajo: they were to peacefully transfer to the reservation at Bosque Redondo or be treated as hostile. Colonel Kit Carson began to wage a “scorched earth” campaign against the Navajo. The plan, devised by General Carleton, called for all male Navajo to surrender or be shot. This resulted in the Navajo Long Walk, their imprisonment, and having the Treaty of Bosque Redondo forced upon them in 1868.

Navajo Long Walk

Prelude to War, 1855

In 1855, Washington Territorial governor Isaac Stevens set out to prepare the territory for an influx of American settlers. In order to make way for these settlers, the American government had to obtain title to the land from the Indian Nations who owned it and to move the tribes out of the way of the settlers and the railroad that would open up the territory.  

The American negotiators met with tribal leaders near present-day Walla Walla. Governor Stevens brought with him the plans to establish two reservations: one reservation was to be located in Nez Perce country for the Nez Perce, Cayuse, Walla Walla, Umatilla, and Spokan; the other reservation was to be in Yakama country for the Yakama, Palouse, Klikatat, Wenatchee, Okanagan, and Colville. The rest of the area could then be purchased by the government and a railroad built through the area. The lands which Stevens had selected for the reservations were those which the American settlers would not want, lands which offered little agricultural potential, and which were out of the way of the railroad.

Stevens quickly found out that most of the tribal leaders disliked his proposal, so he then proposed a scheme with three reservations. The third reservation was to be in Umatilla country for Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla.

Upon arriving at the treaty council, the Nez Perce put on a show of horsemanship and dancing. Governor Stevens and the other Americans failed to recognize the significance of the Nez Perce entrance. According to the Nez Perce Tribe:

“Our Nez Perce ancestors were not only honoring him as an important person: they were also demonstrating that the Nez Perce are a strong and important people who expect to be treated as equals.”

Stevens told the Indian leaders that there were some “bad” Americans who made trouble for the Indians, but east of the mountains the Great Father had taken measures to help his “Indian children” by moving them across a great river where they were away from the “bad” Americans. He carefully omitted any mention of the coercion, starvation, death, and misery that accompanied the Indian removal which the Cherokee called the Trail of Tears. The Americans were apparently unaware that the Indians of the Plateau had been told the story of the Trail of Tears for years by the Iroquois, the Delaware, and the Plains Indians. Delaware Jim, for example, had lived with the Nez Perce for many years and gave them a different account of the removal of the eastern Indians.

Stevens told that Indians:

“We want you and ourselves to agree upon tracts of land where you will live; in those tracts of land we want each man who will work to have his own land, his own horses, his own cattle, and his own home for himself and his children.”

The Indian leaders were not in agreement about the American proposals. They are angered by the arrogant and haughty manner in which the proposals were presented. Peopeo Moxmox, one of the Walla Walla leaders, told the Americans:

“You have spoken in a manner partly tending to evil. Speak plain to us.”

Cayuse chief Howlish Wompoon told the Americans:

“Your words since you came here have been crooked.”

The Nez Perce leader Lawyer told his people that the agreement with the Americans would protect their villages from the Americans and that without it, the Americans would simply take their lands.

Joseph pleaded for the inclusion of his peoples’ Wallowa valley in the Nez Perce reservation. Joseph, leader of the Wallamwatkin band, did not sign the treaty, saying that no one owned the earth and that one could not sell what one did not own. The American government, on the other hand, proceeded with the convenient legal fiction that the Nez Perce band, because they all spoke the same language,  must be a single political entity with tribal leaders recognized by the United States who could represent the tribe as a whole. Writing in 1878, Duncan McDonald put it this way:

“Not being able to gain to his aim the consent of any of the real chiefs, Governor Stevens, a man of much ability and few scruples, cut the Gordian knot for the government by providing a chief freshly manufactured for the occasion.”

The man chosen by the United States to be the supreme chief of the Nez Perce was Lawyer, who was regarded by the Nez Perce as a tobacco cutter (a sort of undersecretary for Looking Glass, Eagle of the Light, Joseph, and Red Owl). Duncan McDonald, who was Eagle of the Light’s nephew, put it this way:

“In other words, for certain considerations he was prevailed upon to sign away the rights of his brethren-rights over which he had not the slightest authority-and although he was a man of no influence with his tribe, the government, as if duty bound on account of his great services, conferred upon him the title and granted him the emoluments of head chief of the Nez Perces.”

Many of the Nez Perce, particularly those who were not Christian, strongly felt that Lawyer did not have the right, or the ability, to speak on their behalf, let alone sign an agreement which would bind them to anything.  

One of the interpreters for the treaty conference later reported that Governor Stevens ran out of patience with the negotiations and tells the Indians:

“If you do not accept the terms offered and sign this paper (holding up the paper) you will walk in blood knee deep.”

Stevens made many grand promises to the Indians during the treaty negotiations, most of which were not included in the actual treaties. For example, Stevens promised the Indians that they would not have to move onto the reservations until one year after the treaty was ratified by the Senate. However, the treaty contained a clause that guaranteed

“the right to all citizens of the United States to enter upon and occupy as settlers any lands not actually occupied and cultivated by said Indians at this time, and not included in the reservation.”

As soon as the treaties were signed, however, Stevens informed the newspapers that the lands were now open for immediate settlement.

The Americans had come to the treaty conference with a prepared treaty which they had intended to impose upon the Indian nations. The treaty commissioners displayed remarkable ignorance or disregard of tribal political structures. They arrogantly lumped fourteen distinct tribes into one nation under the name ‘Yakama’ and declared Kamiakin as its head chief. The treaty declared that the Yakama, Palouse, Pisquouse, Wenatshapam, Klikitat, Klinquit, Kow-was-say-ee, Li-ay-was, Skin-pah, Wash-ham, Shyiks, Ochechotes, Kah-milt-pah, and Se-ap-cat were to be considered as one nation. Many of the Columbia River tribes had not been present at the council. While Stevens claimed that Kamiakin had signed the treaty on behalf of the fourteen tribes, Kamiakin claimed that he only made a mark of friendship for himself.

While the Palouse knew that the treaty council was being held at Walla Walla, they made a conscious choice not to attend. From an Indian viewpoint, if they do not attend the council and participate in the discussions, they would not be bound by any decisions that are made. Unfortunately, the American government did not hold the same view.

Three Palouse chiefs-Kahlotus, Slyotze, and Tilcoax-attended the council in an unofficial capacity and played no role in the official meetings. They observed and spoke with leaders from other tribes.

Twelve days after the treaties were signed at Walla Walla, the newspapers in Washington and Oregon announced that the land east of the Cascade Mountains was now open for American settlement. The announcement, made with the approval of Governor Stevens, ignored the fact that the treaties had to be ratified by the Senate and proclaimed by the President before they could be legally binding and that the Indians had been promised that there would be no American settlement for two or three years. This set the stage for the wars which would sweep across eastern Washington for the next few years.

The 1855 Hell Gate Treaty

When the United States divided Oregon Territory into Washington Territory and Oregon Territory in 1853, western Montana was included in Washington Territory. President Millard Fillmore appointed Isaac I. Stevens as the territorial governor of Washington. Stevens immediately began an aggressive plan to deprive the Indian nations within the territory of title to their lands. Western Montana was not high on his priority list and so he did not arrive there to “negotiate” treaties until 1855.

Governor Stevens considered the western Montana tribes-the Flathead (also called the Bitterroot Salish), the Pend d’Oreilles (also called the Upper Kalispel), and the Kootenai-to be unimportant. His goal was to consolidate them, together with other tribes in eastern Washington Territory, on a single reservation.  

At the treaty council, held near the present-day city of Missoula, the head chief for the Flathead was Victor, the head chief for the Pend d’Oreilles was Alexander, and the head chief of the Kootenai was Michelle. The Pend d’Oreilles chief Big Canoe also played an important role in the negotiations. Stevens insisted that all three tribes be treated as a single nation because he assumed that they were all Salish. He was unaware that the Kootenai are not a Salish-speaking people.

The Kootenai were included in the treaty council because they had one band living on the western shore of Flathead Lake. However, the Kootenai speak a language which is unrelated to the Salish languages of the Flathead, the Pend d’Oreille, and the other tribes in eastern Washington Territory. Not only are they culturally distinct from the other tribes, they did not have a peaceful relationship with the Flathead.

Following the standard practice of American treaty councils, the Americans simply appointed Victor as the head chief over the three tribes. The Americans preferred to deal with a single chief, preferably a puppet dictator whom they could control.

The American plan for a single reservation was not met with enthusiasm. Stevens proposed that the reservation for the three tribes be created in the Jocko Valley, the homeland of the Pend d’Oreilles. However, the Flathead did not want to leave their homeland in the Bitterroot Valley nearly a hundred miles to the south. When Chief Victor refused to sign the treaty until it included provisions for a separate reservation for this people in the Bitterroot Valley, Governor Stevens called him an old woman and a dog. Victor replies:

“I sit quiet and before me you give my land away.”

Chief Alexander, a Christian, favored the treaty as it would give his people an opportunity to learn more about Christianity. He did, however, accuse Governor Stevens of “talking like a Blackfoot.” This was not a compliment.

Red Wolf (Flathead) questioned the wisdom of combining the three tribes and attempted to explain to the Americans that each of the tribes is different. The Americans turned their deaf ears toward his words and continued to act upon their delusion that all Indian cultures were the same.

Big Canoe, a Pend d’Oreilles, pointed out that his people had offered the hand of friendship to the Americans since first contact. He questioned why there was a need for a treaty, saying that treaties were used to settle differences between enemies. While he still offered friendship, he felt that the Americans did not have the right to come into his territory and take away his lands.

While the 1855 Treaty of Hell Gate established what would become the Flathead Reservation in western Montana, it also acknowledged the rights of the Flathead to remain in their homeland in the Bitterroot Valley. According to the treaty, which was theoretically the supreme law under the Constitution, the Bitterroot Valley was to be closed to non-Indian settlement.

As with the other treaties negotiated by Stevens, the Hell Gate Treaty states:

“The exclusive right of taking fish in all the streams running through or bordering the reservation is further secured to said Indians; as also the right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed places … together with the privilege of hunting, gathering roots and berries…”

The assembled chiefs signed the treaty agreement believing that the United States would protect them from Blackfoot raids and that the government would provide them with generous monetary payments and annual appropriations. The chiefs were unfamiliar with American concepts of land ownership and both the treaty and the discussions regarding land ownership were poorly translated.

The Steptoe Defeat

( – promoted by navajo)

In 1853 the United States divided Oregon Territory into two territories: Washington and Oregon. President Millard Fillmore appointed Isaac I. Stevens as the territorial governor of Washington. Stevens immediately began an aggressive plan to deprive the Indian nations within the territory of title to their lands. He was a Jacksonian Democrat and a veteran of the Mexican War. Like many others in the American government, he viewed Indians as racially inferior and as impediments to the expansion of civilization. During 1854-1855, Stevens held treaty councils throughout the new territory and set the stage for a series of Indian wars.


The Spark:

In 1858, two French Canadian miners were murdered near present-day Colfax, Washington. The miners in the area blamed Yakama leader Kamiakin and Palouse leader Tilcoax for the murders, but Mahkeetahkat and Slowiarchy the Younger were the actual culprits. The incident spread fear among the miners who believed that the Indians were going to kill them all. In response, the miners in Colville requested military aid from the army.

The Army:

In response to the request for aid from the miners in Colville, a military expedition was organized to march from Fort Walla Walla through Palouse country to Colville in order to awe the Indians into submission. The expedition crossed the Snake River at the confluence of Alpowa Creek and the Snake. Here Nez Perce chief Timothy (Tammutsa) operated a ferry which was used by the troops to transport men, equipment, and horses across the river. Timothy, Levi (Timothy’s brother) and 13 other Nez Perce joined the force as scouts.

Unknown to the military leaders, Timothy and Palouse chief Tilcoax had a personal feud. Upon joining forces with the army, Timothy sent envoys to tell Tilcoax that the Palouse would soon lose their women and horses. He sent a similar message to the Coeur d’Alene and the Spokan.

The Battle:

While the Nez Perce scouts knew that the Palouse, Coeur d’Alene, and Spokan had gathered in large numbers, this information was not relayed to the American military leaders. Timothy was spoiling for a fight with Tilcoax and so he told the other Nez Perce warriors to remain silent.

While the American commander Major Edward Steptoe had hoped to engage a few Palouse in battle, he was taken by surprise when he encountered more than 1,000 Indian warriors from several different tribes: Palouse, Coeur d’Alene, Spokan, Yakama, Pend d’Oreille, Flathead, and Columbia. While the Indians taunted the soldiers, no shots were fired.

Tilcoax had hated the Americans since he had been driven from his traditional home and forced to establish a new village on the Snake River. On the other hand, Coeur d’Alene chief Vincent and Spokan chief Sgalgalt urged their people to return home without attacking the American troops.

The first attack came from a handful of young Coeur d’Alene warriors. Three important Coeur d’Alene leaders-James Nehlukteltshiye, Zachary Natatkem, and Victor Smena-were killed in the first volley and with this the other Indians joined in the fight. As was typical of Indian warfare, the attack consisted of individual isolated attacks, motivated by the idea of obtaining war honors.

The Indians fought individually without any specific plan except to drive the American forces out of their territory. By nightfall, the Americans knew they were defeated. They buried their howitzers, strapped their wounded on horses, discarded all of their baggage, and slipped quietly away. Historians would later marvel at the fact that 150 American soldiers slipped apparently unnoticed and unpursued through more than a thousand Indian warriors. However, Indian warfare does not seek the annihilation of enemies, and loot-the baggage which the Americans left behind-is of greater interest than killing the soldiers.

Steptoe Battlefield

The Aftermath:

In response to Steptoe’s defeat, the army mobilized a major campaign to punish the Indians. The result was a ruthless and bloody war with little quarter given to the Indians. The goal was to either put the Indians on remote reservations or to exterminate them.  

The 1854-1855 Western Washington Treaties

( – promoted by navajo)

A treaty is simply an agreement between two sovereign nations. The Constitution indicates that Indian tribes are nations and thus the United States entered into many treaties with Indian nations. In 1853 Isaac I. Stevens was appointed Governor of the newly created Washington Territory by President Franklin Pierce. The appointment was a reward for Stevens’ support of Pierce’s presidential candidacy. One of Stevens’ first tasks was to “negotiate” or impose treaties on the Indian nations of Western Washington.  

Like many politicians of this era, Isaac Stevens was a firm believer in the concept of Manifest Destiny and viewed Indians as a barrier to the inevitable development of American civilization. In Western Washington, his task was to consolidate the Indian nations onto reservations and thus free the land for non-Indian development.


In order to streamline the treaty process, Stevens created a kind of boiler plate which utilized the same basic wording for all of the treaties. Stevens saw the Indians as a single group, rather than autonomous sovereign nations. Believing that Indian cultures contained nothing that was valid, he was unaware of the culture distinctions between the different Indian nations.

In general, the treaties called for the end of tribal warfare (and are therefore considered “peace treaties”), the surrender of vast amounts of Indian lands to the United States government, and the confinement of the tribes to several small reservations. In general the treaties called for tribes to be restricted to certain areas (reservations) and it was not uncommon for tribes with totally different languages and cultures to be grouped together.

The treaties recognized the Indian right to hunt and fish at all usual and accustomed places. The wording of the Stevens treaties stated:

“The right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations, is further secured to said Indians in common with all other citizens of the Territory, and of erecting temporary houses for the purpose of curing them, together with the privileges of hunting, gathering roots and berries, and pasturing their horses on open and unclaimed lands.”

The Americans reasoned that by permitting the tribes to fish and hunt as they had for generations, the government would not have to supply the tribes with food.

The tribes were also promised schools and medical care.

Treaty negotiations were conducted in Chinook Jargon (also called Chinook Wawa). As a jargon, Chinook Wawa was developed as a simplified language of trade. It had a limited vocabulary and grammar which made it easy to learn. It also meant that many of the legal complexities involved in the treaty negotiations were lost in translation. U.S. negotiators simply assumed that Indian people were simple minded and unable to understand  sophisticated” concepts.

In some instances, Ste¬vens appointed the tribal chiefs who were to sign for their people.  In anticipation of negotiating treaties with the Indians of the Puget Sound area, Governor Isaac Stevens appointed Michael Simmons as special agent to visit all of the Indian camps and villages. Simmons was to compile statistics on the groups so that they could be consolidated into tribes and placed on reservations. He was also to appoint tribal leaders with whom the governor was to negotiate the treaties. The United States has often been uncomfortable in dealing with leaders of sovereign nations who were not on the U.S. payroll.

Treaty of Medicine Creek:

The first treaty council called by Stevens met at a place known to the Americans as Medicine Creek. It was near a stream known as She-nah-nam, which refers to the sacred space where shamans go to get spiritual power from the water. Meeting with Stevens were leaders from the Nisqually, Puyallup, Seilacoom, Squawskin, S’Homamish, Stehchass, T’Peeksin, Squi-aitl, and Sa-heh-wamish nations.

Prior to the treaty council, the Americans appointed Quiemuth as chief and Leschi as sub-chief of the Nisqually.

While there were translators available to translate the negotiations and the treaty into the native languages, Governor Stevens refused to use them and insisted on the use of Chinook Jargon.

The American proposal called for all of the tribes to give up about 2.5 million acres of land and settle on Squaxin Island, an area of about two square miles. This was land that held no value for the Americans. Governor Stevens felt that the Indians should not be “given” good farmland. In addition, he felt that Indian reservations should not be located on any lands that might be a future route for a railroad to a terminus on the sound.

Leschi insisted, however, that he must retain his homeland. He took the paper out of his pocket that designated him as sub-chief and tore it up in front of Governor Stevens. He then left the treaty grounds and did not return. Realizing that their initial proposal was unworkable, the Americans designated three reservations: (1) Puyallup Reservation near present-day Tacoma for the Puyallup, the Cowlitz, the Muckleshoot, and the Steilacoom; (2) Nisqually near present-day Olympia for the Nisqually; and (3)

Squaxin Island in south Puget Sound for the Squaxin.

In the minds of the Americans, all of these reservations were to be temporary and the treaty was to remain in effect for only 20 years. This was not explained to the Indians (as good bureaucrats, the Americans kept minutes of the negotiations), and then Stevens asked them to sign the treaty. Some signed it at this time. As if by magic, Leschi’s signature appeared on the document even though he had left the council.

Among the non-Indians who signed the treaty as witnesses was Stevens’ 12-year-old son who spent the time during the council playing and did not know what actually was discussed.

Noting that the Puyallup Reservation established in the treaty was unsuitable for agriculture, Edwin Chalcraft, an Indian agent at Puyallup would later write:

“The Indians had been misled or simply tricked by the officials representing the Government, causing discontent about the acreage and character of the land.”

The Treaty of Point Elliot:

Governor Stevens met in council with 82 chiefs near present-day Everett to discuss the Treaty of Point Elliot.

Goliah signed the Point Elliott Treaty for the Lower Skagit and the tribe was then moved to the Swinomish Reservation.

Chief Chowitshoot signed the Point Elliot Treaty for the Lummi. In the treaty they relinquished most of their lands in northwest Washington in exchange for a reservation of nearly 13,000 acres near the present-day city of Bellingham. The reservation included their principle village and fishing weir sites. The reservation was intended to be occupied by the Samish and the Nooksack as well as the Lummi.

The Samish participated in the Point Elliot Treaty council and chief Pateus signed for them. In the final draft of the treaty, however, there was no mention of the Samish.

The Point Elliot Treaty was signed by nine Snohomish chiefs. The Snohomish Reservation (later called the Tulalip Reservation) was intended for occupation by the Snohomish, the Skykomish, the Snoqualme, and the Stillaguamish.

Governor Stevens had Chief Seattle sign the treaty as chief of the Duwamish, Suquamish, and allied tribes. Someone had told Stevens that Seattle belonged to the Suquamish but lived with and commanded the allegiance of the Duwamish.

Sauk-Suiattle chief Wawsitkin refused to sign the Point Elliot Treaty because he feared that his people would not have their own reservation. The document was therefore signed by a sub-chief, Dahtdemin.

Treaty of Point-No-Point:

The S’Klallam under the leadership of the Duke of York (Chet-ze-moka), the Skokomish under the leadership of Nah-whil-luk, and the Chimakum under the leadership of General Pierce (Kul-kah-han) met with Governor Isaac Stevens in treaty council at Point-No-Point. The tribes agreed to move to the Skokomish Reservation. Very few S’Klallam actually moved to the reservation because it was in Twana territory, their traditional enemies.

The Skokomish chiefs spoke out against the treaty and the sale of the land during the negotiations. Governor Stevens insisted that they sign the treaty, but the chiefs insisted that they must talk it over with their people. While the Americans required that the treaty be ratified by the Senate after negotiations, they denied this right to the tribes. While the signatures of all of the Skokomish chiefs appear on the document, the Governor may have once again resorted to forgery to get his way.

The Treaty of Point-No-Point called for the tribes to give up 438,430 acres of their ancestral land and to move to a 3,840 acre reservation within one year of ratification. The treaty also called for the tribes to stop trading at Vancouver Island (British held), to exclude alcohol from the reservation, and to free all of their slaves (something the United States had not yet done with their African-American slaves).  

Treaty of Neah Bay:

Neah Bay is the western-most part of the continental United States and has been the ancestral home of the Makah for thousands of years. While the Makah had been successful fishing people for thousands of years, the United States wanted them to become farmers on land which was not suited for agriculture. The area proposed by the Americans as the Makah Reservation does not include any of the five main Makah villages. The Makah lived in permanent villages.

During the negotiations for the Treaty of Neah Bay, it was soon evident that Governor Stevens and the Americans were totally unaware of the tribes other than the Makah in the area: Quileute, Hoh, Queets, Ozette, Quinault. The Governor wanted to deal only with the Makah and so the other tribes were told to meet with him at a later date at Grays Harbor.

As in other treaty councils, Governor Stevens told the Makah to select a single man to serve as their supreme chief. When they declined to do so, he simply appointed Tse-kow-wootl, an Ozette, as supreme chief. The Americans were unaware that the Ozette were a different tribe and were a smaller tribe than the Makah.  

The Council at Grays Harbor:

On the Chehalis River near Grays Harbor, Governor Stevens met with the Queets, Quinault, Satsop, Lower Chehalis, Cowlitz, and Chinook. The Quileute did not attend the conference. The tribes were opposed to the land cessions and removal which Stevens was attempting to force upon them. After several days of talks, the Indians refused to sign the treaty.

Treaty Conference at Quinault River:

At a special treaty conference on the Quinault River,  the Quinault, Queets, Hoh, and Quileute agreed to a treaty which established the Quinault Reservation. Article 6 of the Treaty stated that the President could consolidate these tribes with other friendly tribes and that the President could have the land surveyed and broken into individual family lots.

Only the Quinault expressed any interest in the proposed reservation. Enraged at their lack of cooperation, Stevens threatened that if they did not sign the treaty he would call in the military. And then, Stevens tells them,

“There will be no treaty, no promises but you will be in the hands of the great father to do as we please.”

Setting the Stage for the Nez Perce War

Under the Constitution, Indian tribes are seen as sovereign nations and thus the United States negotiated treaties with Indian tribes. These are not treaties which ended wars, but rather they are agreements concerning peace, and, most frequently, the sale of Indian lands to the United States. In the treaty process, the United States usually ignored traditional tribal concepts of government in order to install puppet dictatorships. In addition, the United States often misrepresented, or misinterpreted, the treaties with deadly consequences for both the tribes and the American settlers. One example of this can be seen in the 1863 treaty with the Nez Perce which laid the foundation for the 1877 Nez Perce War.

The purpose of the treaty was ostensibly to protect the Nez Perce from illegal non-Indian settlement in their territory. In order to protect them, the size of their territory was reduced. The treaty was signed by 51 Nez Perce men, giving it the appearance of Nez Perce support, but the only ones who signed were U.S. government-supported chiefs and sub-chiefs.  


Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, there was no Nez Perce tribe with regard to a unifying political or government organization. While the bands shared the same language and culture, there was no integration of the various Nez Perce bands into a larger government structure. The Nez Perce tribe was composed of a number of political autonomous bands, each with its own chiefs and council. There were two ways of obtaining chiefly status at the band level. The first was to gain a reputation as being a generous man by sponsoring feasts and tutelary spirit dances and by distributing goods. The second way was through war exploits. To become a war chief, a warrior had to obtain ten war honors (coups).  

Unlike a European king, the Nez Perce chief had no coercive powers. The chief’s duties were to arbitrate disputes, act as spokesman, oversee the well-being of the villagers, and provide an example of outstanding and generous conduct, sharing his wealth with the needy. In return, the people often gave him food, clothing, and other goods, especially for settling arguments.

At times, neighboring Nez Perce bands would be unified into confederacies or composite bands. These composite bands had no single head chief or permanent council.

The 1855 Treaty:

In 1855, the United States government, represented by Governor Isaac Stevens, met with a number of tribes, including the Nez Perce, at Walla Walla, Washington. All of the tribes attending the council understand that the government wants to force the tribes to choose a reservation to prevent wars and to stay out of the way of settlers who want to claim Indian land.

Stevens told the Indian leaders that there were some “bad” Americans who made trouble for the Indians, but east of the mountains the Great Father had taken measures to help his “Indian children” by moving them across a great river where they were away from the “bad” Americans. He carefully omitted any mention of the coercion, starvation, death, and misery that accompanied the Trail of Tears.

Nez Perce leader Lawyer told his people that the agreement with the Americans would protect their villages from the Americans and that without it, the Americans would simply take their lands. Joseph, the leader of the Wallamawatkin band,  pleaded with the Americans to include his peoples’ Wallowa valley in Oregon as a part the Nez Perce reservation. Joseph did not sign the treaty, but the United States maintained the legal fiction that the Nez Perce bands were a single, unified tribe under the leadership of Lawyer and that Lawyer represented all of the Nez Perce.

Lawyer, a practicing Christian, was selected by the United States as the Head Chief of the Nez Perce. From the Nez Perce perspective, he was not a chief, but a tobacco cutter-a sort of undersecretary for Looking Glass, Eagle of the Light, Joseph, and Red Owl. As a chief selected by the United States, Lawyer received certain economic considerations from the government. The Nez Perce felt that Lawyer had no authority.

The 1855 treaty with the Nez Perce was not ratified by the Senate and signed by the President until 1859. At this time, without consulting the Nez Perce, the size of their reservation was reduced from 13,204,000 acres to 7,787,000 acres.

By 1859, the Nez Perce were clearly not a single tribe. About two-thirds of the Nez Perce followed Lawyer and relied upon the laws which had been imposed on them by the American missionaries, soldiers, and Indian agents. On the other hand, several Nez Perce bands saw hypocrisy in the laws and felt that they worked primarily for the benefit of the Americans. These bands maintained their traditional religions and viewed Christianity as the carrier of unjust laws. They preferred to have nothing to do with Christianity.

The 1863 Council:

In 1860, a group of ten Americans invaded the Nez Perce Reservation in violation of the treaty and discovered gold. As a result, more than a thousand gold seekers invaded Nez Perce land in direct violation of the 1855 treaty. The superintendent of Indian affairs met with the Indian agent for the Nez Perce Reservation who recommended that the Nez Perce treaty be modified to allow the gold miners to stay. The Americans then met with Lawyer and his followers who agreed to sell the land around Pierce and Oro Fino (in what is now Idaho). In signing the new treaty, Nez Perce leader Lawyer reminded the Americans that the Nez Perce had not yet received any of the funds promised them in the 1855 treaty. The Americans promised to look into the matter and speed up payment.

Less than a month after the signing of the treaty, Lewiston, Idaho was founded in flagrant violation of the treaty.

In 1862, Senator J.W. Nesmith, in a Senate debate regarding appropriations for the Nez Perce in Idaho, said:

“Treaties are written out conveying away millions of acres, not one word of  which the Indians understand; and complicated articles involving the most abstruse legal provisions, furnishing subjects for interminable litigation, are fully explained and elucidated by some ignorant half-breed interpreter, who does not know one letter from another, but who acts under the direction of some politician, who desires to win his way to public favor by perpetrating a huge swindle upon those who have neither power or intelligence adequate to their own protection.”

With regard to the Nez Perce, General Benjamin Alvord reported:

“Even now, at the end of seven years, I can find but few evidences of the fulfillment of the treaty. Lawyer has never received but six months of his salary as head chief, and the house with which he was to be provided has but just been commenced. Few of their annuities have ever reached them.”

In 1862, the American government established a new military post, Fort Lapwai, which was intended to force American trespassers off Nez Perce land. However, the military generally supported the American intruders rather than the Indians.

With the passage of the Idaho Territory Organic Act in 1863 there was increased pressure by the American settlers to support the interest of the miners rather than abide by the treaty. As a result, the Americans brought the Nez Perce chiefs together in a treaty council to negotiate a major reduction in the size of the reservation. The American Indian agent addressed the council:

“We come as your friends, to advise with you, and to arrange for the preserving of your rights. As your friends we propose to you to relinquish to the United States a part of your present Reservation, and to take a new Reservation, smaller than the one you now hold. We also propose that on this new Reservation, each man or family shall have a piece of land in their own right [severalty], in their own name, just as the Americans do.”

He also said:

“We intend to act with perfect justice towards you, in the sight of God.”

During the treaty council Nez Perce chief Lawyer talked to the Americans about breaking their earlier treaty. He said:

“You have broken the treaty, not we. When you broke through the treaty, it did not make my heart sad or sore, I only wondered why you did it. Now, I am called on to look upon this proposition of yours after the Americans have broken the treaty so often.”

In the treaty negotiations it became evident to all that there was a rift between the treaty faction lead by Lawyer and several other bands. At the end of the negotiations, Big Thunder made a formal announcement that his people wished no further part in the treaty and declared that the Nez Perce Nation was dissolved. Big Thunder shook hands with Lawyer telling him that they would be friends, but hereafter they would be a distinct people. All of the headmen, including the members of the Lawyer party, formally agreed that Lawyer no longer had the right to regard himself as spokesman or head chief of the anti-treaty bands.

One newspaper, the Daily Union, reported:

“It appears there is a feud between the Lawyer and Big Thunder party. So antagonistic are they that one of Lawyer’s Chiefs said the other day that Big Thunder hated them as bad as the Blackfeet, and this misunderstanding seems to be irreconcilable.”

Another newspaper, the Daily Oregonian, reported it this way:

“There seems to be great animosity between the bands of ‘Lawyer’ and ‘Big Thunder.’ So much that they hate each other as much as they do the Blackfeet, and until this difference is reconciled, the chances of making a successful treaty seem very slim.”

The Washington Statesman in Walla Walla reported:

“Big Thunder and his band have thus far refused to treat, and it is thought they will take no part in the Council. Eagle-from-the-Light and Joseph’s bands are with Big Thunder and had not at last account made their appearance at the Council grounds. There has long been a feud between these bands and that of Lawyer-they never recognizing Lawyer as a Chief.”

One of the popular rumors among non-Indians was that Confederate agents were talking to the Indians and stirring up trouble against the American treaty council. The Bulletin, a San Francisco newspaper, reported:

“It is generally believed here among loyal citizens that some of Jeff Davis’s disciples have been at work among these Indians, endeavoring to poison their minds against the Government of the United States, and thus prevent them from making a treaty for the cession of a portion of their present reservation.”

One of the American participants in the council, Captain George B. Curry, reported:

“Although the treaty goes out to the world as the concurrent agreement of all the tribe, it is in reality nothing more than the agreement of Lawyer and his band, number in the aggregate not a third part of the Nez Perce tribe.”

Only those tribal leaders within the reduced area of the reservation signed the treaty. The tribal leaders outside of this area absolutely and flatly denied and rejected the treaty.

The Wallamwatkin band, led by Joseph, did not attend this treaty council and did not sign this treaty. The homeland for this band was in the Wallowa Valley of Oregon. His son, Chief Joseph would later put it this way:

“In this treaty, Lawyer acted without authority from our band. He had no right to sell the Wallowa (winding water) country. That had always belonged to my father’s own people, and the other bands had never disputed our right to it.”

While the Wallamwatkin felt that the treaty did not affect them, the United States felt that it had acquired title to the Wallowa Valley in Oregon.


In spite of the fact that both the minutes of the treaty council and the newspaper reports make it clear that the bands outside of the reservation  area did not agree to the treaty, the United States government acts as if it has purchased the land belonging to the non-treaty bands.

A government investigator was sent to investigate the treaty situation with the Nez Perce bands in Oregon in 1875. He reported that the treaty did not apply to them as they had never signed it. He also pointed out that the government had also violated the treaty by allowing settlement in their area. He wrote:

“In my opinion … the non-treaty Nez Perce cannot in law be regarded as bound by the treaty of 1863; and in so far as it attempts to deprive them of a right to occupancy of any land its provisions are null and void. The extinguishment of their title of occupancy contemplated by this treaty is imperfect and incomplete.”

In spite of this report, the Nez Perce lands in Oregon were opened for American settlement. This set the stage for the 1877 Nez Perce War.  

Negotiating American Indian Treaties

( – promoted by navajo)

A treaty is simply an agreement between two sovereign nations. In the American political system, a treaty involves three basic steps:

(1) First, there is negotiation. Representatives from the U.S. government meet with representatives of the other governments, discuss mutual concerns, and arrive at some sort of agreement.

(2) This is then followed by Senate confirmation. The Senate, according to the Constitution, advises the President on international matters. Thus, the Senate has the opportunity to debate and discuss the agreement, and to confirm it.

(3) Finally it is signed-proclaimed-by the President.  

From the time the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787 until 1871, the United States government, following the legal view that Indian tribes are nations, negotiated and signed treaties with Indian nations. The process of negotiating Indian treaties can best be viewed as a form of internal diplomacy and foreign affairs and provides some insights into how the United States deals with other countries.

Legally a treaty is a form of law which is superior to state and local law. George Washington envisioned treaties with Indian nations as binding on both parties in perpetuity. He felt that both the power and the honor of the federal government would be pledged to their enforcement.

In the first Indian treaty negotiated under the Constitution-a treaty with the Creek Confederacy in 1789-George Washington interpreted the constitutional requirement to obtain “the advice and consent” of the Senate as meaning that he had to appear in person before the Senate prior to treaty negotiations. This proved to be a bit of a fiasco and never again would a President appear in person to seek the advice and consent from the Senate on a treaty. Hereafter, the treaty would be sent to the Senate for their approval after it had been negotiated.

The first problem in negotiating an Indian treaty was to determine with whom it should be negotiated. In 1787, in his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, John Adams recommended that political leaders pay attention to the governmental structures of Indian nations, particularly the separation of political powers and their democratic legislative structure. Unfortunately no-one paid any attention to Adams’ advice.

In general, the United States was unaware of how most American Indian governments worked and the fact there was great diversity in these governments. Wishing to negotiate with as few sovereign entities as possible, the American negotiators failed to understand Native American concepts of sovereignty. On the Great Plains, for example, each band was an autonomous unit, but the Americans tended to ignore this fact and simply grouped bands who spoke a somewhat similar language together as a single tribe. The concept of tribe, as we use it today in referring to Indian nations, is actually a concept which was superimposed upon Indian peoples.

Many American Indian governments in the nineteenth century were participatory democracies in which all had a right to speak and be heard in council. No single leader had the right to tell another person what to do. Leadership was by persuasion and example, not by authority and force. Deliberations would generally continue until all agreed and those who disagreed would simply leave and would, therefore, not be bound by the council decisions.

American negotiators preferred to deal with dictatorships rather than democracies. Since almost no Indian nations were dictatorships, this meant that the United States simply appointed the chiefs with whom they negotiated. In this way, the United States only had to deal with a handful of Indian leaders, leaders who tended to be agreeable to American interests as they had been appointed by American officials. The United States often ignored leaders who were chosen by Indian people and preferred to deal with the “puppet dictators” which it had set up. The Americans maintained their chiefs by putting them on the payroll and by putting them in charge of distributing gifts and money to their people. By encouraging graft and corruption, the Americans hoped to gain the loyalty of the leaders they appointed.

Very often the men appointed as chiefs by the Americans were not men who were recognized as traditional leaders. In addition, the Americans refused to recognize the existence of women leaders. In fact, they often refused to allow Indian women to participate in the treaty negotiations.

One example of the Americans inability to deal with women leaders can be seen in 1831 in their negotiations with Black Hawk’s Sauk in Illinois. The band had returned to their traditional home of Saukenuk, an area which they had farmed for many generations. They were met by an American militia force who insisted that the Sauk had no right to be in Illinois, nor to farm their traditional lands. The Sauk met in council with the Americans to see if they could settle the matter peacefully. Black Hawk told the Americans that the women owned the fields, not the men. Then a woman selected by the other women addressed the Americans. In her short speech she declared the land-especially the cornfields and gardens-actually belonged to the women rather than the whole tribe, and let it be known that the women had never sold any of the land nor consented to the transfer of it to the United States. The American negotiator simply dismissed her comments and said that the President did not send him to make treaties with women nor to hold council with them.

There are numerous examples of the American negotiators engaging in “making chiefs” by appointing the men they want as “supreme” chiefs. At the Fort Laramie Treaty Council in 1851, for example, each tribe was asked by the American negotiators to provide a single chief of the whole nation. After council with his people, chief Terra Blue of the Brulé (one of the Sioux tribes), said: “we have decided differently from you, Father, about this Chief for the nation. We want a Chief for each band.” The Americans responded by selecting a single chief-Frightening Bear–to represent the entire Sioux nation.

At the 1855 treaty council in Walla Walla, Washington, the Americans lumped 14 autonomous, culturally distinct, and sovereign Indian nations together under the designation “Yakama” and then declared Kamiakin as head chief. While the Americans claimed that Kamiakin signed the treaty on behalf of the 14 “confederated” bands, Kamiakin insisted that he touched the pen to the paper only for himself and only to indicate his personal friendship with the Americans. He made no claims of representing any group.

While the concept of negotiation might conjure up an image of give and take, of talking and listening, the American negotiators often seemed to be incapable of listening. They came to the councils with an outcome already predetermined by their ideology and had no intention of letting either facts or opposing viewpoints get in their way. They often came with a treaty that they wanted to impose upon the Indian nations. At the Walla Walla treaty council, Governor Isaac Stevens became frustrated with the Indians’ reluctance to simply sign the treaty he had brought with him that he held the treaty up and told them: “If you do not accept the terms offered and sign this paper you will walk in blood knee deep.”

In the treaty negotiations with the Creek Confederation in 1787-the one that President Washington had sought a priori Senate approval for– Alexander McGillivray, the Creek Head Chief, told the Americans that he would not have this treaty crammed down his throat. He gathered up his 900 warriors and left. Secretary of War Henry Knox informed President George Washington: “We have the Mortification to inform that the Parties have separated without a treaty.”

The United States stopped making treaties with Indian nations in 1871. Angered by the budget considerations in the Indian treaties, the House of Representatives attached a rider to an appropriations bill which stopped all treaties. Since that time there have been agreements with the Indian nations, but these agreements, unlike treaties, have to be approved by both houses of Congress.

Today there are many American Indian people who feel that the dealings and negotiations that the United States is having with the tribal peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan are similar to the negotiation process of the American Indian treaties.  

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Freedom! Lakota Sioux Indians Declare Sovereign Nation Status

I’ve been working so hard the past couple of weeks that I don’t know what the local talk is about this – none of my phone calls this morning found anyone I needed at their offices or home.  My brother-in-law is at a conference in Rapid City and will be home Sunday, so I should be able to learn some from him then if not before.

Will update then.  Meanwhile. . . .

“I want to emphasize, we do not represent the collaborators, the Vichy Indians and those tribal governments set up by the United States of America to ensure our poverty, to ensure the theft of our land and resources,” Means said, comparing elected tribal governments to Nazi collaborators in France during World War II.

Rodney Bordeaux, chairman of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said his community has no desire to join the breakaway nation. Means and his group, which call themselves the Lakota Freedom Delegation, have never officially pitched their views to the Rosebud community, Bordeaux said.

“Our position on that is we need to uphold the treaties, and we’re constantly reminding Congress of that message,” Bordeaux said. “We’re pushing to maintain and to keep the treaties there because they’re the basis of our relationship with the federal government.”

Comments at the Argus Leader

Comments at Rapid City Journal


Press Release



DECEMBER 20, 2007

9:02 AM

CONTACT: Lakota Freedom

Naomi Archer, Communications Liaison

(828) 230-1404 or

Threaten Land Liens, Contested Real Estate Over Five State Area in U.S.West; Dakota Territory Reverts back to Lakota Control According to U.S., International Law.

WASHINGTON, DC – December 20 – Lakota Sioux Indian representatives declared sovereign nation status today in Washington D.C. following Monday’s withdrawal from all previously signed treaties with the United States Government. The withdrawal, hand delivered to Daniel Turner, Deputy Director of Public Liaison at the State Department, immediately and irrevocably ends all agreements between the Lakota Sioux Nation of Indians and the United States Government outlined in the 1851 and 1868 Treaties at Fort Laramie Wyoming.

“This is an historic day for our Lakota people,” declared Russell Means, Itacan of Lakota. “United States colonial rule is at its end!”

“Today is a historic day and our forefathers speak through us. Our Forefathers made the treaties in good faith with the sacred Canupa and with the knowledge of the Great Spirit,” shared Garry Rowland from Wounded Knee. “They never honored the treaties, that’s the reason we are here today.”

The four member Lakota delegation traveled to Washington D.C. culminating years of internal discussion among treaty representatives of the various Lakota communities. Delegation members included well known activist and actor Russell Means, Women of All Red Nations (WARN) founder Phyllis Young, Oglala Lakota Strong Heart Society leader Duane Martin Sr., and Garry Rowland, Leader Chief Big Foot Riders. Means, Rowland, Martin Sr. were all members of the 1973 Wounded Knee takeover.

“In order to stop the continuous taking of our resources – people, land, water and children- we have no choice but to claim our own destiny,” said Phyllis Young, a former Indigenous representative to the United Nations and representative from Standing Rock.

Property ownership in the five state area of Lakota now takes center stage. Parts of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana have been illegally homesteaded for years despite knowledge of Lakota as predecessor sovereign [historic owner]. Lakota representatives say if the United States does not enter into immediate diplomatic negotiations, liens will be filed on real estate transactions in the five state region, clouding title over literally thousands of square miles of land and property.

Young added, “The actions of Lakota are not intended to embarrass the United States but to simply save the lives of our people”.

Following Monday’s withdrawal at the State Department, the four Lakota Itacan representatives have been meeting with foreign embassy officials in order to hasten their official return to the Family of Nations.

Lakota’s efforts are gaining traction as Bolivia, home to Indigenous President Evo Morales, shared they are “very, very interested in the Lakota case” while Venezuela received the Lakota delegation with “respect and solidarity.”

“Our meetings have been fruitful and we hope to work with these countries for better relations,” explained Garry Rowland. “As a nation, we have equal status within the national community.”

Education, energy and justice now take top priority in emerging Lakota. “Cultural immersion education is crucial as a next step to protect our language, culture and sovereignty,” said Means. “Energy independence using solar, wind, geothermal, and sugar beets enables Lakota to protect our freedom and provide electricity and heating to our people.”

The Lakota reservations are among the most impoverished areas in North America, a shameful legacy of broken treaties and apartheid policies. Lakota has the highest death rate in the United States and Lakota men have the lowest life expectancy of any nation on earth, excluding AIDS, at approximately 44 years. Lakota infant mortality rate is five times the United States average and teen suicide rates 150% more than national average. 97% of Lakota people live below the poverty line and unemployment hovers near 85%.

“After 150 years of colonial enforcement, when you back people into a corner there is only one alternative,” emphasized Duane Martin Sr. “The only alternative is to bring freedom into its existence by taking it back to the love of freedom, to our lifeway.”

We are the freedom loving Lakota from the Sioux Indian reservations of Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana who have traveled to Washington DC to withdraw from the constitutionally mandated treaties to become a free and independent country. We are alerting the Family of Nations we have now reassumed our freedom and independence with the backing of Natural, International, and United States law. For more information, please visit our new website at


More Info:

Lakota Freedom

  • Lakota Sioux Indian representatives declared sovereign nation status Wednesday in Washington D.C. following Monday’s

    withdrawal from all previously signed treaties with the United States Government MORE…

  • Justified?  Withdrawal originates from standing mandate carefully thought out by traditional chiefs and thousands of representatives at Treaty Councils SEE THE TREATY COUNCIL DOCUMENT…
  • Lakota delivers introductory Portfolio Packet to State Department and foreign embassies  READ THE PACKET…

  • Press Conference Photos (held at Plymouth Congregational Church, Washington, DC)…SEE THE GALLERY…  

More. . .

Lakota group pushes for new nation
(The Sioux Falls Argus Leader 12/20)

Descendants of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse break away from US (AP 12/20)

Lakota group declares sovereign nation status (The Rapid City Journal 12/20)