The Political Organization of the Omaha Indians

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Omaha Indians were living in what is now Nebraska where they were a farming people who engaged in buffalo hunting. The Omaha fields would be planted in May and tended until the corn was well established, usually late June or early July. Then the entire village would leave on the summer buffalo hunt and return to harvest the corn in September and October.

One of the principle features of Omaha social organization was the patrilineal clans. These clans were named, and membership was through the father, that is, each person belonged to the father’s clan.

The Omaha had a central government which was composed of a council of seven chiefs who were overseen by two principal chiefs. Decisions made by the council had to be unanimous. Each of the chiefs was the leader of a clan which possessed a pipe. The number seven is a sacred number because it is made up of the four cardinal directions plus up, down, and the place in the center where all directions meet. Noting the importance of the two pipes in Omaha government, ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Fletche, in their 1911 book The Omaha Tribe, wrote:

“The retaining of the two Pipes as the supreme or confirmatory authority within the council rather than giving that power to a head chief was consonant with the fundamental idea embodied in the tribal organization.”

Attending the Omaha council meetings in an ex oficio capacity were the keeper of the Sacred Pole, the keeper of the Sacred Buffalo Hide, the keeper of the two Sacred Tribal Pipes, the keeper of the ritual used for filling the two pipes, and the keeper of the Sacred Tent of War. According to Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche:

“None of these five keepers had a voice in the decisions of the council, the responsibility of deciding devolving solely on the Seven Chiefs who composed the council proper.”

At the Omaha council meetings, one of the members would raise an issue or question. It would then go around the circle, starting with the man next to the man who had introduced the issue. The matter would pass around and around the circle until all came to an agreement. It was not uncommon for an entire day to be spent in deliberation in this fashion. In making a decision, ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche report:

“All must accept it and then carry it through as one man. This unity of decision was regarded as having a supernatural power and authority.”

In addition to the seven clan chiefs and the two principal chiefs, there were two other orders of chiefs among the Omaha. There were an unlimited number of lower chiefs known as Brown Chiefs (Ni’kagahi xu’de) and a higher and more limited number of Dark Chiefs (Ni’kagahi sha’be). To become a dark chief, there were seven grades which a man had to pass through. The first of these was to obtain the materials for the staff carried by the leader of the buffalo hunt. The seventh grade involved the giving of gifts to maintain peace in the tribe. When a man had done a hundred of these acts of gift giving, he was eligible to join the Night Blessed Society and to have his daughter tattooed.


With regard to law, accusations of serious wrongdoing, such as murder, were not taken lightly. Many of the tribes safeguarded the social order with some form of punishment. Among the Omaha, for example, there was in the Tent of War a staff of ironwood which had a rough end. Rattlesnake poison was placed on this rough end and a person who was guilty of a major offense would be prodded with the stick, usually resulting in the offender’s death. This punishment was decided on by the council and carried out by a trustworthy man. One of the offenses punished in this way was making light of the authority of the chiefs.

Among the Omaha, deliberate murder was punished by banishment for four years. During this time the murderer had to camp outside of the village and was to communicate to no one. The offender was also required to wear a special garment which was not to be removed during the period of banishment. After the chiefs passed the sentence of banishment, they would take the Sacred Pipes to the murder victim’s family. They would present the family with gifts and ask that they not seek any further punishment on the murderer’s family.


Among the Omaha, the true function of war was to protect the people from outside enemies. Ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche report:

“Aggressive warfare was to be discouraged; any gains made by it were more than offset by the troubles entailed.”

It was, however, difficult to stop the young men from going to war. However, there were steps that had to be taken. A younger man would go to one of the keepers of a war bundle and invite him to a ceremonial feast. By obtaining the permission of the war bundle keeper, the leader of the war party was relieved of any responsibility should a member of the party be killed. Chiefs were required to use their influence for peace and could not initiate war parties.

During the nineteenth century, Omaha war parties tended to be small: 10-15 warriors. The war party would usually leave the village at night. The warriors would wear no feathers or ornaments. When returning from a successful battle, the war party would light a fire near the village to signal their return.

Among the Omaha there were two classes of war parties: (1) those undertaken to capture horses and other valuables, and (2) those undertaken as revenge for attacks by other tribes.

The Omaha recognized six grades of war honors which could be taken from the body of an enemy:

  • Striking an unwounded enemy with the hand or with the bow. This was the highest war honor and only two warriors could take this honor from the same person.
  • Striking a wounded enemy with the hand or bow.
  • Striking a dead enemy with the hand or bow.
  • Killing an enemy.
  • Taking a scalp.
  • Severing an enemy’s head.

Among the Omaha, warriors who were recognized for their bravery were allowed to wear a Crow Belt bustle: two trailers of hide covered with feathers hung from the belt and eagle wing pointer feathers protruded upward from the base of the bustle. In an essay in Painters, Patrons, and Identity: Essays in Native American Art to Honor J.J. Brody, Aaron Fry describes the bustle:

“The main body of the bustle was made of an eagle skin with head and tail still attached; the eagle was associated with the destructive powers of the Thunder Being and the destructive nature of war. A wolf tail was tied to the right side of the skin; a stuffed crow skin was tied to the left.”

To be able to wear the Crow Belt, a warrior had to be the first to strike an unwounded enemy in battle; to be the first to touch a fallen, live enemy; to be the second to touch a fallen, live enemy; and then to repeat all three of these deeds of valor. The Crow Belt, originally created when the Omaha, Osage, Quapaw, and Kansa were living as one tribe, represents the mythic relationship between the warriors and their patrons, the wolf and the crow.

Indian Affairs in 1966

Just fifty years ago—1966—American Indian affairs in the United States was still being guided in part by a philosophy of termination: that is, dissolving American Indian governments and making Indians assimilate into the larger non-Indian culture. American Indians for the most part weren’t cooperating with this termination philosophy and still insisted that they had a right to exist, as Indians, within the United States. Briefly described below are some of the Indian issues and events of 1966.

Museums, Arts

Movie actor Nipo Strongheart (Yakama) died and willed his extensive collection of Indian books and artifacts to the Yakama Nation. The artifacts were incorporated in the Yakama Nation Museum in Toppenish, Washington and his personal library became a special collection of the Yakama Nation Library.

The Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma opened a small museum in Muskogee for the cultural and historical items of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muskogee, Creek, and Seminole people who were driven into Oklahoma from the Southeast.

The ballet Kochare based on the Hopi creation myth and written by Quapaw-Cherokee composer Louis Wayne Ballard was performed by the Harkness Ballet Company.


In Arizona, the Peabody Coal Company signed leases with the Hopi and the Navajo allowing them to strip mine 25,000 acres of the Joint Use Area in Arizona. With regard to the Navajo, journalist Marjane Ambler, in her book Breaking the Iron Bonds: Indian Control of Energy Development, reports:

“The Interior Department, under the direction of Stewart Udall, worked with industry and the tribal attorney to convince the council to act immediately, without deliberation.”

Law professor Charles Wilkinson, in his book Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations, calls the leases “financial travesties” and writes:

“Among other provisions, the Hopi received inadequate payments for the coal and sold their water for the slurry pipeline at the egregiously low rate of $1.67 per acre foot.”

Black Mesa, the area which was to be mined, is considered sacred by traditional Navajo and Hopi people. In pressuring the Navajo tribal council, council members were not informed about the value of their coal or about the potential impacts of the mining.

In Montana, the Salish and Kootenai of the Flathead Reservation requested more money for the lease that Montana Power Company had for Kerr Dam. The tribe wanted more money because the company had added an additional generation plant, but the company disagreed arguing that its power license did not designate the energy produced. The Federal Power Commission (FPC) suggested that the lease be increased from $240,000 per year to $850,000 per year, but Montana Power Company refused to acknowledge FPC jurisdiction in the matter. The tribes took Montana Power Company to court and the court required the company to pay the increased lease amount.

In Mississippi, the Choctaw constructed the Choctaw Industrial Park in an effort to improve the economic conditions of the tribe.


In New Mexico, the Rough Rock Demonstration School was an experiment in which a group of Navajo parents operated a combined day and boarding school. In her book Language Shift Among the Navajos: Identity Politics and Cultural Continuity, Deborah House describes the Rough Rock community this way:

“a small community where most people still followed the traditional Navajo pastoral lifestyle, shopped at the local trading post, spoke Navajo almost exclusively, and had little formal education and no previous contact with a school in their community.”

While funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the school was the first Indian-controlled school in the United States. According to Smithsonian historian Wilcomb Washburn, in his book Red Man’s Land/White Man’s Law:

“Control of school policy, including the handling of a budget of nearly a million dollars, was placed firmly in the hands of Indians, most of whom were without formal education and some of whom were illiterate.”

The school taught English as a second language rather than requiring students to know English in order to learn. Non-Indian staff members received in-service training to familiarize them with Navajo culture. Deborah House writes:

“The role of Rough Rock Demonstration School as a model for other tribal education programs cannot be overemphasized. It was the school that established the legal precedent for the right of the federal government to give funds directly to local Indian communities to run their own schools.”

War on Poverty

In Arizona, the Havasupai began a community action program under the Office of Economic Opportunity. They also started a Head Start pre-school program.

In Arizona, the Pascua Yaqui Association under the leadership of Anselmo Valencia obtained a grant to start a Community Action Program under the Office of Economic Opportunity. With this grant the Pascua Yaqui organized a project to train tribal members to build their own homes and then to purchase them with sweat equity. The new homes were built on a 200-acre parcel and became known as New Pascua.


In Idaho, an Indian branch of the Mormon Church was opened on the Fort Hall Reservation. In his book The Northern Shoshoni, Brigham Madsen notes:

“Apparently religion at the reservation had come full circle from a century ago, when the Latter-day Saints were under attack for proselytizing among the Shoshoni and Bannock.”

In Utah, the Shoshone members of the old Washakie Ward were transferred to the Mormon ward in Portage. Brigham Madsen reports:

“This action ended the formal Mormon Church support of a religion organization at Washakie, as nearly all the Indians had left the old settlement.”

In Florida, the Independent Big Cypress Mission was founded as a mission to the Seminole.

In South Carolina, the grave of Seminole war leader Osceola was vandalized. The vandals tunneled beneath the grave’s enclosure with the intention of taking his bones back to Florida.


In California, the Cahuilla won a judgment against the city of Palm Springs with regard to zoning matters. The city had passed a zoning ordinance and a master plan which had included control over Indian land in the city.

In Oregon, the U.S. District Court, in Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation v. Maison, upheld treaty rights to hunt on unclaimed land in the Matilla and Wallowa-Whitman nations’ forests without restriction by the Oregon Game Commission.

In Oklahoma, the Cherokee filed a suit which asserted that riverbeds belong to the Cherokee. The suit was against the state of Oklahoma, 16 oil companies, and 2 sand and gravel companies.


In Texas, Tom Diamond, the attorney for the Tigua, notified the city of El Paso that tribal members would no longer be responsible for taxes to any local division of government. The notification was based on the fact that the Texas Legislature in 1854 recognized that the Tigua held title to the Ysleta Land Grant. Local authorities were cooperative and receptive to the Tigua claim.

In Texas, a study by University of Arizona anthropologist Nick Houser showed that the Tigua were still a culturally distinct Indian tribe. The Texas State Historical Survey Committee acknowledged the accuracy of the report and passed a resolution stating that the tribe was entitled to federal recognition.

In Oklahoma, the Five County Northeastern Oklahoma Cherokee Organization selected Andrew Dreadfulwater, a respected ceremonial leader and dedicated Baptist layman, as president. The organization was renamed the Original Cherokee Community Organization.

In Oklahoma, the Bureau of Indian Affairs recognized the Comanche Tribe of Oklahoma as the political representative of the Comanche people.

In New Mexico, Wilbert C. Begay (Navajo) was elected to the state legislature. Tom Lee (Navajo) was elected to the state senate.

In Montana, Percy DeWolf (Blackfoot)  and Jean A. Turnage (Flathead) were elected to the state senate.

The Iroquois League

Long before the Europeans arrived on this continent there was born to the Huron people a man who had a vision of bringing peace to his people. In his vision he saw a great pine tree. The roots of this tree were five powerful nations. From these roots, the tree grew so high that its tip pierced through the sky and on top there was an eagle watching to see that none of the nations broke the peace among them. This Peacemaker was a man named Deganawida (also spelled Deganawidah).

According to oral tradition, Deganawida named each of the allied nations, choosing a place as the distinguishing feature of nationality:

  • Seneca: the big hill people, or the people of the big mountain
  • Cayuga: the people at the landing, in reference to portaging a canoe
  • Mohawk: the people of the flint, in reference to the flint quarries in their territory
  • Onondaga: the people of the hill, in reference to the hill where a woman long ago had appeared to give the people corn, beans, squash, and tobacco
  • Oneida: the people of the standing stone, in reference to the supernatural stone which followed them

Deganawida’s vision, articulated through the great Mohawk orator Hiawatha, united five Iroquois-speaking nations – the Seneca, the Cayuga, the Onondaga, the Oneida, and the Mohawk– into the League of Five Nations. Later the Tuscarora would join them to form the League of Six Nations. The League is also called the Iroquois Confederacy. They refer to themselves as Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse).

With regard to the Great Law which established the Confederacy, Kevin White, in an article in Indian Country Today, writes:

“The core concepts of the Great Law of the Haudenosaunee are peace, power, and righteousness.”

Former Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier, in his book Indians of the Americas, writes:

“The plan was to renounce warfare between one another and to present an alliance against a warring world.”

He also calls the League of Five Nations “the most brilliant creation in the record of man.” The Haudenosaunee put it this way:

“The Haudenosaunee, or Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy, is among the most ancient continuously operating governments in the world. Long before the arrival of the European peoples in North America, our people met in council to enact the principles of peaceful coexistence among nations and in recognition of the right of peoples to continue an uninterrupted existence.”

These principles include kinship, women’s leadership, and the widest possible community consensus.

The story of Deganawida and the founding of the League is a story of epic proportions which continues to be recounted in the oral traditions of the Iroquois today. According to anthropologist William Fenton, in his chapter in North American Indians in Historical Perspective:

“A knowledge of the teaching imputed to Deganawidah goes far to explain Iroquois self-confidence, their superiority to their neighbors, and at times their polite arrogance to the representatives of European governments.”

While the designation “Iroquois” is often used to refer to the Five or Six Nations, it should be remembered that not all Iroquois-speaking nations in the Northeast were members of the League. Deganawida’s own nation – the Huron – did not join.

The League of Five Nations originally had 50 permanent offices filled from the member nations: 14 from the Onondaga, 10 from the Cayuga, 9 from the Oneida, 9 from the Mohawk, and 8 from the Seneca. The men who filled these offices are known as sachems. According to former Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier:

“The Confederacy was one of delegated, limited powers; and with exhaustive care and success, it was so structured that authority flowed upward, from the smallest and most organic units, not downward from the top.”

He goes on to say:

“The Confederacy was a nation which enhanced the liberty and responsibility of its component parts down even to the minutest member.”

It was the women who first accepted the message of Deganawida, the prophet who first envisioned the League. Therefore, the women have a great deal of authority. The sachems are selected by the clan mothers. Women also have the right to initiative, recall, and referendum.

With regard to Iroquois leadership, Onondaga chief Oren Lyons, in Voice of Indigenous Peoples: Native People Address the United Nations, says:

“Our leaders were instructed to be men with vision and to make every decision on behalf of the seventh generation to come, to have compassion and love for those generations yet unborn.”

Deganawida, the Peacemaker and Founder of the League of Five Nations, is said to have advised the sachems that their “skin should be seven thumbs thick so that no outrageous criticism or evil magic could pierce them.”

There are three great double doctrines or principles (six principles in all) upon which the League was founded. The first principle stresses: (a) health of mind and body, and (b) peace among individuals and groups. The second principle stresses: (a) righteousness in conduct, including advocating this righteousness in thought and speech, and (b) equality in the adjustment of rights and obligations. The third principle stresses: (a) physical strength, power, and order, and (b) spiritual power (orenda).

Traditionally at the meetings of the League, each of the delegates from the Five Nations sat at assigned places in accordance with their position in the confederacy. As firekeepers, the Onondaga would give the topic for discussion first to the Mohawk and Seneca. The Mohawk would then discuss the matter among themselves and then refer it to the Seneca. After discussing the issue, the Seneca would return the item to the Mohawk who would hand the item across the fire to the Younger Brothers. It would then be discussed by the Oneida and then by the Cayuga. The Oneida would then hand it back across the fire to the Mohawk who would announce the combined opinion to the Onondaga. In her chapter “The League of the Iroquois: Its History, Politics, and Ritual,” in the Handbook of North American Indians Elizabeth Tooker reports:

“If the Onondaga disagreed, they referred it back for further discussion, but in so doing they had to show that the opinion of the other tribes was in conflict with the established custom or with public policy.”

While speaking, the speaker would hold a wampum belt which would then be handed to the tribe being addressed. In his book The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution, historian Alan Taylor reports:

“As a sacred substance, wampum confirmed the earnest importance of a message. Without accompanying wampum, words were frivolous.”

Traditionally, an issue would be introduced at the council on one day, but not discussed that day. At some later time it would be discussed. It is tradition that the issue be slept with prior to discussing. Anthropologist William Fenton puts it this way:

“No Iroquois to this day will answer to a proposition on the same day, nor will he press another party for a reply until the latter is ready. One listens carefully, repeats the main points of what he hears, and then takes the message home and puts it under his head for the night as a pillow.”

Speeches at the council were made by individuals who were not only well-versed in proper Iroquois protocol, but also articulate orators. Historian José António Brandão, in his book “Your Fyre Shall Burn No More” Iroquois Policy toward New France and Its Native Allies to 1701, writes:

“They could be subtle and evasive enough to give an answer that the other side wished to hear, but without actually committing their tribes to a specific course of action.”

One important Iroquois custom was documenting their words with wampum belts. All agreements, for example, were accompanied by wampum belts which symbolized the important points of the agreement. At later times, the belts would be brought out and “read” if the agreement needed to be discussed again.

In order to record what was said in council, the Sachem presiding over the meeting would have a handful of small sticks. A stick would be given to one of the Sachems present so that the person with the stick would be responsible for remembering what the speaker said.

Historian José António Brandão summarizes the governing power of the Iroquois Confederacy during the 17th century:

“The Iroquois had no permanent governing body constantly in session and directing policy. What they had instead was a framework that allowed for joint action when the member tribes felt the need for it.”

Anthropologist William Fenton describes the League this way:

“What made the League effective was not its ability to centralize power and communicate authority to the margins, in which it failed miserably, but the consensus not to feud among the Five Nations and to compound such infractions by ritual payments of wampum.”

Among the nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, there were two hereditary war chiefs and both of these titles belonged to the Seneca. They were Needle Breaker who belonged to the Wolf clan and Great Oyster Shell of the Turtle clan. The Seneca, as Guardians of the Western Door, were the first of the Iroquois to face the danger of an attack on the western frontier. These two chiefs assumed the planning for the military operations of the Five Nations.

The League of Five Nations also had Pine Tree Chiefs who served as advisors to the sachems. The Pine Tree Chiefs were outstanding orators, war leaders, and others who did not hold hereditary offices. Anthropologist William Fenton writes:

“Pine Tree chiefs were orators for the council or they spoke for the women, and they went on embassies.”

Within the League, the tribes are divided into two sides or moieties. In council, the Mohawk, Onondaga, and Seneca are considered “brothers” to each other and as “fathers” to the younger tribes (Oneida, Cayuga, Tuscarora). The Cayuga call the Oneida “elder brothers” and they call the Tuscarora “younger brothers”.

The members of the League of Five Nations made a distinction between civil chiefs and war chiefs. However, more prestige was given to the civil chiefs. The civil chiefs were viewed as fire keepers in the center of a concentric ring of warriors, women, and the general public.

Another important position in the Iroquois political system was the runner. In noting the importance of this position, historian Laurence Hauptman and former Oneida tribal secretary Gordon McLester, in their biography Chief Daniel Bread and the Oneida Nation of Indians of Wisconsin, write:

“Iroquois runners summoned councils, conveyed intelligence from nation to nation, and warned of impending danger. It is also important to note that the Iroquois use the term runner to describe a person who serves the council as a conduit for the conduct of essential business, and who is accorded respect as a community leader worthy of other higher positions of authority and prestige in the nation.”

The League of Five Nations Council traditionally met in the later summer or early fall at the council fires of the Onondaga.

Hopi Political Organization

In 1934, the United States enacted the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) which envisioned Indian tribes adopting constitutions and governmental forms which imitated those of the United States. The United States assumed that an Indian “tribe” was a governmental unit and that “reservation” and “tribe” were one and the same. There was little concern for or recognition of traditional forms of government.

Under the IRA each “tribe” (“reservation”) was to vote on whether or not they wanted to reorganize. In 1936, the Hopi in Arizona voted on reorganization under the IRA. Only 20% of the Hopi turned out to vote and less than 15% of the total population actually supported reorganization. Harry James, in his book Pages from Hopi History, writes:  “When the final vote was taken, the Hopi who opposed the establishment of a tribal council were true to their traditional procedure in such matters and simply abstained from voting either for or against it.”

In other words, the Hopi “voted with their feet” by not participating in their election and in this way they demonstrated their opposition. While those familiar with traditional Hopi government recognized that only a small minority of the Hopi favored reorganization, the federal government, using only the numbers from those who actually voted, declared that the Hopi would be reorganized. Despite resistance to a unified Hopi government, a tribal council was established and all of the villages, with the exception of Oraibi and Hotevilla, sent representatives. The new government was the first time the Hopi had a central government and the new tribal council represented an alien way of life and government.

Traditional Hopi Government:

 Hopi are a Pueblo people who have lived in permanent agricultural villages in present-day Arizona for more than a thousand years. The name “Hopi” is a contraction of Hopi-tuh which means “peaceful ones.” While the United States has insisted on dealing with the Hopi as if they were a single tribe, they have been, and continue to be, a collection of independent, autonomous, and self-governing villages. Each of the Hopi villages has traditionally been self-governing, though the form of village government is similar in all villages. In an article in North American Indian Anthropology: Essays on Society and Culture, anthropologist Triloki Nath Pandey writes:   “There is no central authority for the Hopis as a whole. Within each major village there is a hereditary group of priests or chiefs.”

While the Hopi villages were tied together by a common language and religious beliefs, people identified themselves by their village. The concept of “Hopi” indicated a culture, but not a governmental entity.

The traditional Hopi villages were ruled by clan theocracies in which the kikmongwi (high priest) served as the father of the village as well as the priest for the most important village ceremony. In the Hopi village of Oraibi, for example, the kikmongwi was the head of the Bear Clan and the chief priest of the Soyal ceremony. The kikmongwi would usually appoint at least one spokesman who would speak for him.

Hopi clans, by the way, are matrilineal, which means that each person belongs to the mother’s clan. Each of the clans has its own ceremonies and its own history.

The primary role of the kikmongwi was to ensure the success of the crops and thus the well-being of the villages by carrying out ceremonial obligations. Political authority focused primarily on resolving disputes regarding land use. The kikmongwi leads by examples of humility, hard work and good thoughts. If a chief fails to follow the proper path, the Hopi are quick to criticize him, reminding him of the ancient principles.

Each Hopi village also had a qaletaqmongwi or war chief who was responsible for enforcing internal social order and for dealing with external affairs.

The town crier in each Hopi village would inform the people about village events. In The Hopi Indians of Old Oraibi: Change and Continuity , anthropologist Mischa Titiev, writing about Oraibi, notes:  “Some of the ordinary announcements they make suggest that they occasionally act as agents to maintain discipline.”

The village government was formed by the leaders – Crier Chiefs, Kiva Chiefs, and others – with clan relationships indicating governmental positions. According to writer Catherine Feher-Elston, in her book Children of Sacred Ground: America’s Last Indian War:  “It is true that the priests, religious leaders, warriors, and kikmongwis would listen to various opinions before making decisions, but government was not necessarily by consensus.”

After tribal reorganization in 1936, with a tribal government formed according to a constitution and bylaws written for them by anthropologist Oliver LaFarge, everything was supposed to change. However, the villages have continued to be self-governing, often ignoring the existence of a tribal council.

Blackfoot Political Organization

When the European nations began their invasion of the Americas, they assumed that there was only one natural way for a people to be governed: a monarchy. Since most American Indian nations didn’t have monarchies, the Europeans simply invented the idea that a “chief” ruled over a “tribe” in a manner similar to that of a European monarch. While the United States rejected the concept of monarchy for its own government, it continued to insist that Indian “tribes” were somehow ruled by “chiefs” who acted like monarchs. As a result, there are many people today, including American Indian people, who are not aware that “tribes” and “chiefs” are not aboriginal concepts.

On the Northern Plains, along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains in what is now the U.S. state of Montana and the Canadian province of Alberta, the Blackfoot Nation (sometimes called the Blackfoot Confederacy) was composed of three or four large groups who shared the same language, and many of the same ceremonies, but maintained their political independence. These groups included the Siksika (also called Northern Blackfoot), Kainah (also called Blood), and the Pikuni (also called Piegan or Peigan). The Pikuni are currently divided into South Piegan (located in Montana on the Blackfeet Reservation) and North Peigan (located in Alberta). Each of these four groups—Siksika, Kainah, North Peigan, and South Piegan—was composed of many small groups commonly called bands.

Like other Northern Plains Indian nations, the Blackfoot had an economy that was organized around bison hunting. Blackfoot political organization was, therefore, formed around communal buffalo hunting. The band was the primary hunting unit and each band was politically autonomous.

Prior to the horse, bands among the buffalo-hunting tribes tended to be small – perhaps 20-30 related families with a total population of 100-200 people. According to anthropologist John Ewers in his book The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains:  “These bands were large enough to enable their members to encircle a small herd of buffalo on the prairies and large enough to offer a stiff defense against human enemies; yet they were small enough to permit survival during periods of game scarcity and limited rations.”

Each band had its own chief, usually a man. The position of chief was not hereditary, but a son could succeed his father if he distinguished himself with leadership qualities, including bravery and generosity. Chiefs were not autocratic, that is, they could not tell people what to do, but led through the power of persuasion.

Among the Blackfoot, the band chief was responsible for preserving peace in the group. This meant that the band chief would arbitrate conflicts and disputes which arose in daily life. One of the important aspects of social control in the band was ridicule: in cases of mild misconduct, ridicule was very effective in shaming the offender into changing behavior.

During the summer many of the bands would gather together for a joint encampment which might last as long as two weeks. During this time there would usually be a Sun Dance and the chiefs might gather in council. At this time, the most influential band chief would be recognized as the head chief of the tribe. However, the only time when this rank had any significance was during the summer encampment. At this time, the role of tribal chief was really as chairman of the council of chiefs rather than as a ruler.

One of the important characteristic of Blackfoot leadership was generosity which was often expressed in the give-away– an activity condemned by Christian missionaries and the United States government. The give-aways were – and still are — formal events at which one is expected to give away property to other people. Chiefs were expected to give away most of their property.

Since the primary power of a Blackfoot chief lay in the ability to persuade people, one of the important chiefly qualities was oratory. Chiefs had a reputation of speaking well and telling only the truth. Historian John C. Jackson, in his book The Piikani Blackfeet: A Culture Under Siege, describes the leadership qualities esteemed by the Blackfoot:  “Standing tall, speaking straight, exuding dignity and unshakable self-confidence were the attributes that won respect.”

In addition to generosity, Blackfoot leaders were expected to be experienced warriors with a reputation for bravery in battle. War honors were recorded as counting coup—doing things like taking a weapon from a live enemy, capturing a horse from within an enemy camp, and so on. Killing was not necessarily a form of counting coup. Anthropologist Hugh Dempsey, in one of his articles in the Handbook of North American Indians, writes:  “Generally, a band leader had an outstanding record of success in warfare and was regarded as generous to the poor in his distribution of war booty or inherited wealth.”  Howard Harrod, in his book Mission Among the Blackfeet, puts it this way:  “Without an impressive war record, as well as a history of philanthropy, no man could hope to become a band chief.”

Many bands had both a civil chief and a war chief. The civil chief was generally known for eloquence while the war chief was known for leading successful war parties.

Huron Government and Law

Long before the European invasion of North America, five Iroquoian-speaking tribes formed a powerful confederation known as the League of Five Nations. The idea for this confederacy came from the prophet Deganawida who had been born to the Huron. The Huron, an Iroquoian-speaking nation, however, never joined the League of Five Nations.

The name Huron was given to them by the French and means “rough, boorish.” They call themselves Wendat, Guyandot, or Wyandot which means “islanders.” Their traditional territory was north of the Lake Simcoe region of Ontario. Their homeland is often referred to as Huronia in many of the historical accounts.

Like the other Iroquian-speaking Indian nations, the Huron were farmers with a slash-and-burn agriculture which was supplemented by some hunting and fishing and by the gathering of certain wild plants for both food and fiber. Corn, beans, and squash provided about two-thirds of the Iroquois caloric intake. By 1630 it is estimated that the Huron, with a population of about 21,000, were harvesting 189,000 bushels of corn from 7,000 acres.

The basic foundation of Huron society, like that of other Iroquois nations, was the clan system. Iroquois society is divided into matrilineal clans which are named after certain animals. Among the Huron there were eight matrilineal clans: Turtle, Wolf, Bear, Beaver, Deer, Hawk, Porcupine, and Snake. The clans were exogamous, meaning the people had to marry outside of their own clan. Children belonged to their mother’s clans.

The Huron were a confederacy of four major tribes: Bear, Rock, Barking Dogs, and White Thorns (also known as Canoes). The people called their confederacy Wendat or People of the Peninsula. The major reason for the formation of the Huron confederacy was protection against common enemies. They were given the name Huron by the French.

There were three levels of government among the Huron: village, tribe, and confederacy. At the village level, clan chiefs organized councils in which older men and women expressed their opinions on matters concerning the village.

Each Huron village council met frequently, often daily, to discuss village affairs. According to anthropologist Bruce Trigger in his book The Huron: Farmers of the North:  “Often there was little business to transact, and the meeting took on the characteristics of an old boys’ club.”

Religion professor Henry Bowden, in his book American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict, reports:  “The council was not so much a governing body as a sounding board for canvassing attitudes and pointing out the popular choice on specific matters.”  Discussions would be continued until consensus was evident.

Among the Huron there were two kinds of chiefs: (1) civil chiefs who were concerned with everyday life and peace, and (2) war chiefs who were concerned exclusively with military matters. Being a Huron chief required both time and an expenditure of wealth. Anthropologist Elisabeth Tooker, in her book An Ethnography of the Huron Indians, 1615-1649, writes:  “Chieftainships, then, were partly elected and partly inherited: a chief was elected from among the relatives of the deceased chief.”

The person who was elected was usually not the child of the deceased chief, but was more often a nephew or a grandson.

In her book Chain Her by One Foot: The Subjugation of Native Women in Seventeenth-Century New France, Karen Anderson reports:  “It would appear that Huron clan leaders had little ability to control the behavior of either women or men who chose to disobey or to not follow the decisions that had been taken in council.”

The Huron recognized four main classes of crime: (1) murder and wounding and injury, (2) theft, (3) witchcraft, and (4) treason. Murder placed an obligation on the relatives to avenge the killing. Reparation payments helped alleviate the possibility of blood feuds. Anthropologist Bruce Trigger notes:  “Huron law did not permit society as a whole to punish individuals.”

Among the Huron, material gifts were often used as a way of restoring peace and mending the social fabric following a crime, such as murder or physical injury. The guilty party (including both the individual and the clan) would pay the victim’s family. According to Henry Bowden:  “Thirty presents was the usual indemnity for killing a man, but the murder of a tribeswoman called for forty gifts.”

In 1649, the Iroquois, well-armed with guns supplied by Dutch traders, attacked and destroyed the Huron. Historian Ian Steele, in his book Warpaths: Invasions of North America, writes:  “Archeologically and anthropologically, the Huron can be regarded as exterminated in 1649 because their sites were abandoned and their culture structures destroyed. Historically, however, many of these people survived the calamity.”


Cherokee Government and the English

The primary unit of government among the Cherokee was the town. Each town—perhaps 50 at the time of first European contact—was autonomous. The government of each town was not tied to the government of other towns. These Cherokee towns were loosely affiliated into three groups: (1) the Lower Towns on the headwaters of the Savannah River (including the towns of Keowee and Estatoe), (2) the Middle Towns on the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River (including Etchoe, Stecoe), and (3) the Upper Towns (Overhill and Valley) on the Lower Little Tennessee River and the headwater of the Hiwassee River (including Settico and Tellico).

Each Cherokee village had two governments: a white government which governed when the village was at peace, and a red government which governed during times of war. The white government included the chief who was given the title Beloved Man; the chief’s advisor; counselors from each clan; a council of elders; a speaker; messengers; and ceremonial officers. The red government included the Great War Chief; the Great War Chief’s Second; seven war counselors; a War Woman; the Chief War Speaker; messengers; ceremonial officers; and scouts. The fate of captives and war prisoners was decided by the War Woman.

Among the Cherokee, all were able to participate in the councils. Cherokee society tended to be egalitarian rather than hierarchical. The chiefs had an advisory role and their power lay in their ability to persuade through oratory. According to historian John Finger in his book The Eastern Band of Cherokees 1819-1900:  “There were no leaders in the European sense, no king or prince who wielded coercive authority over others.”

After the chiefs spoke, each person had an opportunity to speak. Issues were discussed until consensus was reached. The council did not pass laws nor regulate conduct, but sought to resolve differences and difficulties.

During the first half of the eighteenth century, Cherokee government had to face the challenges of co-existing with intruding English colonists. According to the English worldview, there was only one legitimate form of government: a monarchy in which power was passed down through the paternal line from father to son. The English had a great deal of difficulty in trying to understand the matrilineal system of the Cherokees and other American Indian nations in which each person belonged to the mother’s clan.

The English viewed leadership as coercive—that is, the leader had the right to tell others what to do. The idea of consensus, the basis of Cherokee government, was an alien concept to them. In their dealings with the Cherokee and other Indian nations, the English preferred to impose their own concepts of an authoritative monarchy on Indian nations.

Another point of conflict between the English view of government and the Cherokees was over the role of women. While English women had few rights, Cherokee women were full participants in Cherokee government. Women were important in Cherokee government because of their leadership within the matrilineal clan system. In the war council, women were present and were consulted with regard to strategy. Grace Steele Woodward, in her book The Cherokees, reports:  “Custom dictated that an assemblage of war women or Pretty Women be present at every war council. And since the war women had themselves won previous honors in wars and were the mothers of warriors, they played an important role in Cherokee war councils.”

Initially, the English sought to establish a trading relationship with the Cherokees. In 1673, Virginia trader Abraham Wood sent James Needham and Gabriel Arthur out from Fort Henry to establish trade with the Cherokee at their capital of Chota. The English colony was in need of Cherokee furs, hides, beeswax, and bears’ oil for export to England.

In 1684, the formal government-to-government relationship between the Cherokees and the English was established with a formal treaty between the English and the Cherokee towns of Toxawa and Keowa.

At a meeting with the leaders from 37 Cherokee towns in 1721, the British governor, being more comfortable with a single leader, simply appointed Wrosetasatow (Mankiller or Outacite) as the supreme chief or “king” of the Cherokee. The English felt that it would be easier to deal with only one chief to fix the boundaries between the Cherokee nation and the European settlements.

With a common danger from the English settlers, the Cherokee villages came together to elect a principal chief to represent all of the villages in 1721. The concept of Cherokee nationality as opposed to village autonomy began to emerge. According to historian Marion Starkey in The Cherokee Nation:  “The Cherokees, a reasonable people, willing to learn from their enemies, found this innovation of practical value and did not discard it.”

At this time, it was estimated that the Cherokees were living in 53 towns which ranged in population from 62 to 622. The total Cherokee population was estimated at 10,434.

In traditional Cherokee government, when individuals did not agree with the line of reasoning that was gaining acceptance within the council, they would simply withdraw. Thus, in 1721, a group of Cherokee led by Yunwi-usgaseti (Dangerous Man) moved west across the Mississippi River to escape the colonists’ insatiable demands for land and the Cherokee government’s acquiescence to these demands. After Yunwi-usgaseti’s group crossed the Mississippi River there was no further communication with the Cherokee who remained behind in the Southeast. However, oral tradition records that many years later a runner came from the west to report that they were still living at the base of the Rocky Mountains.

In 1730, Sir Alexander Cuming traveled to the Cherokee town of Keowee. He brazenly entered the council house wearing pistols and a sword (a violation of Cherokee tradition) where 300 town elders were meeting. He demanded that they recognize the authority of the English King and threatened to burn down the council house if they did not. Journalist Stanley Hoig, in his book The Cherokees and Their Chiefs: In the Wake of Empire, reports:  “Cuming’s audacity, however, overwhelmed the Cherokee leaders, and they on bent knee pledged their loyalty to the Crown of England against the French in North America.”  Cuming appointed Moytoy of Tellico as the Cherokee “emperor.”

In reviewing the historical accounts of this event, Cherokee historian Robert Conley, in his book The Cherokee Nation: A History, concludes: “The story is absurd.” Conley acknowledges that Cuming visited the Cherokee and talked with people in the townhouses, but points out that “whatever he accomplished, he certainly embellished the tale for the benefit of King George.”  Conley writes:  “It is easy to believe that the egotistical King George II was taken in by Cuming’s fabrication. What is astonishing is that almost all historians ever since writing about the Cherokees have also been gullible enough to accept it at face value. In the first place, it has always been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get all Cherokees to agree on anything. In the second place, the Cherokees have always (at least since the time of the killing of the Ani-Kutani) been almost fanatical about democracy.”

With regard to Moytoy being selected as “emperor”, it was more likely that the Cherokee selected Moytoy to be their trade representative in dealing with the English traders.

In 1753 the Cherokee villages delegated to the town of Chota the power to negotiate trade and diplomatic relations for the entire Cherokee nation. In a trade agreement with the Carolinas, Old Hop was declared the Cherokee emperor by the British.

In 1753, a delegation of Cherokee leaders under the leadership of Attakullakulla met with the British governor in South Carolina. The Cherokee assured the British of their loyalty. The British governor informed the Cherokee that the purpose of the council was to establish peace between the Cherokee and the Creek. Attakullakulla argued with the governor, telling him that when he had spoken with the King, the King had asked the Cherokee to avenge the lives of his people taken by the Creek. While the governor insisted that he spoke for the King, Attakullakulla said that he should go to England to speak with the King in person. Attakullakulla reminded the governor of the treaty which the Cherokee signed in England which had promised them goods. He said:   “I remember the great King George’s talk, for the paper said the governor of Carolina was to supply us with all kinds of goods, but if he did not, we might have them in Virginia.”  In the end, the governor agreed to provide the goods.

In 1755, the British governor of South Carolina met with the Cherokee to ask them to sell their landholdings in areas in which there were no active Cherokee towns. Old Hop, unaccustomed to speaking with the British, asked the Cherokee council to select someone to represent the welfare of the Cherokee people. The council selected Attakullakulla. Attakullakulla presented a young boy to the British governor saying:  “I have brought this child that when he grows up he may remember our agreement this day and tell it to the next generation that it may be known forever.”

As a result of the council, the Cherokee agreed to provide the British with warriors and to give up their land in South Carolina. In return, the British agreed to provide the Cherokee with guns and ammunition and to build forts to protect the Cherokee.

While the Cherokee nation had changed its government during their interactions with the English colonial government and had begun to function with regard to its national interests rather than just the interests of the individual villages, there were even more challenges to their form of government ahead.

In 1776 a group of American colonists signed the Declaration of Independence which condemned King George III for preventing the colonists from appropriating western lands which belonged to Indian nations. The Revolutionary War divided the Indian nations as both the British and the newly formed United States tried to obtain Indian allies. As a result of the war, the Cherokee nation’s government had to change again to meet the incessant demands of the newly formed United States.

White House Council on Native American Affairs

President Barack Obama has signed an executive order establishing the White House Council on Native American Affairs. The Council will be headed by the new Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and will have members from every Cabinet department as well as other federal agencies. According to the executive order:

“The Council shall work across executive departments, agencies, and offices to coordinate development of policy recommendations to support tribal self-governance and improve the quality of life for Native Americans, and shall coordinate the United States Government’s engagement with tribal governments and their communities.”

According to the Supreme Court interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, American Indian tribes are “domestic dependent nations.” Federal law recognizes that dealing with Indian nations involves government-to-government relationships. According to President Obama:

“This order establishes a national policy to ensure that the Federal Government engages in a true and lasting government-to-government relationship with federally recognized tribes in a more coordinated and effective manner, including by better carrying out its trust responsibilities.”

Over the past few years, there have been a number of actions by federal agencies to ensure government-to-government relations with Indian nations. Earlier this year, the Agriculture Secretary signed a departmental regulation establishing guidance for tribal relations. The regulations are intended to ensure that American Indians have full access to the programs and services offered by the Department of Agriculture.  

Last year, the United States Army enacted a formal policy that specifically addresses its interactions with federally recognized Indian tribes. The new policy is intended to build government-to-government relations with federally recognized tribes in a manner that sustains the Army mission. According to the new policy:

“The Army will communicate with federally recognized tribes on a government-to-government basis in recognition of their sovereignty.”

In 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), after prodding from tribal officials, established an Office of Native Affairs and Policy as a part of its national broadband plan. The new office works to promote the deployment and adoption of communication services and technologies throughout tribal lands.  

On the other hand, many state governments are still reluctant to work with Indian nations on a government-to-government basis and to acknowledge tribal sovereignty.  

Andrew Johnson and the Indians

Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 his Vice-President, Andrew Johnson, assumed the Presidency and completed Lincoln’s term. Johnson, who is best known as the first American president to survive impeachment, is generally ranked by historians with James Buchanan and George W. Bush as among the country’s worst presidents.

Andrew Johnson photo President_Andrew_Johnson_zpsecf47851.jpg

With regard to American Indians, the Johnson administration faced massive problems with corruption in the Indian Service (today known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs), what to do with the “southern” Indians, concerns over the pacification of the western Indians, and the acquisition of Alaska.  

Indian Administration:

In the United States, the person most directly in charge of Indian Affairs was the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, a political appointment within the Department of the Interior. While the Johnson administration lasted slightly less than a full four-year term, during this time three different men held the position of Commissioner of Indian Affairs.  

The first Commissioner of Indian Affairs appointed by Johnson was Dennis Nelson Cooley, a man who had no experience in Indian affairs but who was a close friend of the Secretary of the Interior. Since the Secretary of the Interior had vowed to clean out the “pack of thieves” in the Indian Office, he planned to set policy from above and simply needed a Commissioner of Indian Affairs who could be controlled and trusted. Like the Secretary, the new Commissioner of Indian Affairs was a devout Christian who saw no value in Indian cultures.

The Secretary of the Interior, in an 1865 letter to the Indian Peace Commission:

“No attempted coercion of the religious faith of the latter will be tolerated, nor should any denomination of Christians be suffered to have the exclusive control of their educational interests.”

He went on to write:

“It is the purpose of the government to encourage the Indians to gain a livelihood, advance in the pursuits and arts of civilized life, and improve their moral, intellectual, and physical condition. The nation cannot adopt the policy of exterminating them.”

General Alexander McCook announced in 1865 that there were only three basic alternatives for federal Indian policy: (1) preserve the area west of the Kansas settlements and east of California for Indians alone; (2) place Indians on reservations and use the military to keep them there; or (3) exterminate them.

In 1866, Secretary of the Interior James Harlan resigned and was replaced by Orville H. Browning. As a result, Cooley resigned as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Lewis Vital Bogy was then appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs. His appointment to the position, however, met with political opposition and the Senate refused to confirm the appointment. Bogy’s demand for military action against landholding Indians and the fact that he had cancelled three large bids awarded by Cooley and awarded them to firms with  higher bids (firms to which he personal ties) generated antagonism against him in Congress.

In 1867, Nathaniel Green Taylor, a minister in the Method Episcopal Church, was appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Like most of the people appointed to this post, he had no real qualifications for the position. With regard to the western Indians, he recommended that three large reservations be created: one north of Nebraska, another one south of Kansas, and a third in an undesignated area in the southwest. Taylor wrote:

“In my judgment, the Indians can only be saved from extinction by consolidating them as rapidly as it can be peacefully done on larger reservations, from which all whites except Government employees shall be excluded, and educating them intellectually and morally, and training them in the arts of civilization, so as to render them at the earliest practicable moment self-supporting, and at proper time clothe them with the rights and immunities of citizenship.”

The Secretary of the Interior, in his 1868 annual report to Congress, wrote:

“It is believed that peaceful relations would have been maintained to this hour had Congress, in accordance with the estimates submitted, made the necessary appropriations to enable this department to perform engagements for which the public was pledged.”

Southern Indians:

Much of the Johnson presidency was focused on southern reconstruction. While not directly a part of the reconstruction efforts, one of the concerns of the Indian Office was what to do with those Indian nations in Indian Territory (now primarily Oklahoma) who had signed treaties with the confederacy.

A commission was formed in 1865 to negotiate with the Indian nations that had joined the Confederacy during the Civil War. The commission is chaired by the Commissioner of Indians Affairs, Dennis Cooley. At the treaty council at Fort Smith, Arkansas, Cooley had his very first encounter with Indians. He was completely ignorant of Indian cultures and protocols. The Indians viewed him as highhanded and arrogant, making demands on them which were totally unrealistic.  

Among the members of the commission was the Seneca Ely Parker, who had been a Union general during the war. Parker’s inclusion on the commission was particularly significant as it demonstrated that the U.S. was willing to include Native voices. The Choctaw and Chickasaw delegations stated that

“the fact that the United States government have seen fit to include a member of an Indian tribe with its commissioners, has inspired us with confidence … we are anxious to have the benefit of his presence and counsel in any deliberations or interviews.”

In 1866, there were two Cherokee delegations negotiating with the federal government in Washington: one was loyal to John Ross (who had supported the North)  and the other to Stand Watie (who had supported the South). The Watie delegation was headed by Elias C. Boudinot. John Rollin Ridge, who was living in California, suddenly appeared and attached himself to the Boudinot delegation. The United States government recognized him as the head of the Southern Cherokee group. Ridge had previously played no leadership role among the Cherokee and his sudden, unanticipated emergence as a leader during the negotiations has baffled a number of historians. Under Ridge’s leadership, the southern delegation won a favorable treaty which was sent to the Senate and to President Johnson for ratification.

President Johnson decides that it didn’t look good to be dealing with former rebels and ordered a new treaty to be drawn up with John Ross.

Western Indians:

In 1864, during the administration of Abraham Lincoln, an American militia group in Colorado has attacked a peaceful Cheyenne camp at Sand Creek. In spite of the fact that the Cheyenne were flying both an American flag and a white flag, the militia brutally massacred women, children, and elders. In 1865, congressional hearings on the Sand Creek massacre in Colorado were held by the Committee on the Conduct of War. Over three days witnesses described the killing and mutilating of the Cheyenne and noted that the Cheyenne had been given assurances of safety by the army. The Committee’s report states:

“It is difficult to believe that beings in the form of men, and disgracing the uniform of United States soldiers and officers, could commit or countenance the commission of such acts of cruelty and barbarity.”

In 1865, Congress authorized a joint special committee of the House and Senate to conduct a field study of the western Indian tribes. The study was to focus on the way in which Indian tribes are treated by both the military and civil authorities. Two years later, the special committee chaired by Wisconsin’s Senator James Doolittle reported that Indians outside of Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) were decreasing. With regard to Indian wars with non-Indians, the committee felt that most

“are to be traced to the aggressions of lawless white men.”

The committee report noted the loss of Indian hunting grounds and that driving the last vestige of the buffalo from the plains will “put an end to the wild man’s means of life”. While commenting on the pros and cons of placing the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the War Department or leaving it in the Department of the Interior, the committee recommends that it stay in the Department of Interior.

Congress debated whether Indian nations should be approached through negotiations and through the use of military force. In general, the view of using negotiations rather than force prevailed with proponents citing the huge cost of warfare with the Plains Indians. One Senator estimated the cost of killing an Indian at $1 million, while others felt that it would take 10,000 soldiers at least three years to “pacify” the Plains. The alternative to exterminating the Indians seemed to be to consolidate them on large reservations, out of the way of “progress” (and railroad lines), and then to “civilize” them.

President Andrew Johnson told Congress:

“If the savage resists, civilization, with the Ten Commandments in one hand and the sword in the other, demands his immediate extermination.”

In 1867, Congress authorized the creation of a Peace Commission of three generals and four civilians to negotiate settlements with the hostile Indians. The Peace Commission was to try to bring together the warring tribal leaders, to determine the causes of their unrest, and to negotiate treaties with them.

Congress appointed the four civilian members of the commission and the President appointed the three army officers. All of the Congressional appointees were well-known opponents to the use of force against Indians. The army officers, on the other hand, were vociferous advocates of military force, stating that peace without punishment is impossible.

The purpose of the commission was rather ambitious: they were to establish a permanent peace with the tribes and to remove them to reservations which would be far away from roads and railroads. Initially, these reservations were to be large enough to allow the Indians to continue to support themselves with hunting, but as they become 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. Non-Indians were to be excluded from the reservations, except for those employed by the government.

The initial 1868 report of the Peace Commission on the reasons for Indian hostilities noted that the primary cause for war was injustice. In looking at the almost constant wars with Indians, the Commission then asked:

“Have we been uniformly unjust? We answer, unhesitatingly, yes!”

The report also condemned the cor¬ruption of the Indian Department and noted abundant cases in which

“agents have pocketed the funds appropriated by the govern¬ment and driven the Indians to starvation.”

The Commission reported that while the United States had pledged to protect Indian nations against American depredations, it had failed to do so.


The United States bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867. The Russians had never attempted to force the Alaska natives to recognize Russian ownership, nor had they made any treaties with the natives, nor had they purchased any land from the natives. The Russians had never had any effective control over the natives and the total Russian population in Alaska was less than 800 living in four very heavily fortified towns. Thus the Russians really sold only their tenuous title to Alaska. In the transaction, the natives were barely mentioned and there was more concern for the protection of those Russians who might want to remain.

The Tlingit watched the ceremonial transfer from Russia to the United States at New Archangel (Sitka) with great interest. German geographer Aurel Krause, writing in 1885, reported:

“Since they were not allowed in town, they embarked in their canoes and took positions in the harbor from which, in spite of the distance, they had a good view of the proceedings.”

While the Russians had lived among the Indians and intermarried with them, the Americans were very different. The Americans were not concerned about Indian cultures and pursued their development of Alaska with little regard for Indian heritage.

Assimilation in 1920

By the late nineteenth century, all Americans, except for American Indians, knew for a fact that all Indian tribes would be extinct in the twentieth century and that all individual American Indians, like other immigrants, would be fully assimilated into mainstream American culture in which they would be English-speaking, Christian farmers. While this American fantasy continued to survive through most of the twentieth century, Indians did not vanish. As Americans entered into the period of growth and prosperity popularly known as the Roaring 20s following World War I, Indian tribes and Indian people continued to exist, usually out of sight of non-Indians.  

Resource Development:

During the nineteenth century, the American government, in its infinite wisdom and charity, had moved American Indians out of the way of economic development by attempting to confine them to reservations. In 1920, non-Indian entrepreneurs, aided by the American government’s Indian Office and inspired by greed, began to look at the possible economic resources on Indian reservations. The American government, believing its own racist propaganda, assumed that Indians should not be allowed to develop these resources, but rather they should be developed for and by non-Indians. Since Indians were the poorest people in the United States, there was little, if any, concern for providing adequate compensation for the resources which were taken from them.

The Indian agent for the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana rented the coal mine on the reservation to a non-Indian. While Indians now had to buy coal from the mine, non-Indians were allowed free coal. The Indian agent justified renting the coal to non-Indian interests by saying that the Indians did not know enough about Anglo practices to mine and market the coal.

The City of Tacoma, Washington, applied to the Department of Interior to purchase a right of way through the Skokomish Reservation for power lines and service access roads in conjunction with their Cushman Hydroelectric Project. While the Department of Interior was considering this request, the City of Tacoma filed a condemnation suit in state court to acquire the land needed for the project. Included in the condemnation suit were the tribal trust lands. The City did not notify the Department of the Interior or the Bureau of Indian Affairs about this law suit.  

In order to allow non-Indians to obtain Yavapai water rights in Arizona, the Bureau of Indian Affairs quietly obtained an executive order from President Woodrow Wilson which authorized the allotment of the Salt River Reservation and reclassified the Fort McDowell Reservation as grazing land.

The residents of Bernalillo, New Mexico, put forth a plan to divert water from one of Santa Ana Pueblo’s ditches into the Bernalillo Community Ditch. While the residents claimed that their plan would not interfere with Santa Ana water, the Pueblo insisted that an agreement be drawn up in which the Bernalillo Community Ditch users acknowledged Santa Ana water rights. The document also stated that these water rights did not fall under state jurisdiction.

While one of the goals of the government’s assimilation program was to make Indians into self-sufficient farmers, a government report (released in 1921) revealed that most Indian land was being farmed by non-Indians: 4.5 million acres as compared with only 762,000 acres which were being farmed by the Indians themselves.


In the United States in 1920, most Americans strongly believed that there was only one true religion: Christianity as reorganized during the Protestant reformation. With regard to American Indian religions, most non-Indians felt that either Indians had no religion or that they worshiped the devil. In either case, it was the duty of the government to bring the Indians into Christianity so that they could participate in American society. While Indian religious activity had been illegal now for two full generations, the aboriginal ceremonies refused to die and so the government continued its efforts to suppress these activities and to jail those who participated in, or advocated participating in, such evil ceremonies. The government was particularly interested in stopping the Plains Indian Sun Dance and the pan-Indian Native American Church.

In Wyoming, the Shoshone under the spiritual leadership of Morgan Moon openly revived the Sun Dance on the Wind River Reservation. The reservation superintendent had banned the dance and when John Truhujo spoke with him about it, Truhujo was threatened with five years in Leavenworth Prison. An Indian Office supervisor from Washington, D.C. watched the dance and took pictures. After having seen the dance, the supervisor disagreed with the reservation superintendent and reported that he saw nothing wrong with the ceremony.

In Arizona, the non-Indian principal of the Oraibi School interrupted a Hopi ceremony when he saw a clown dancer with a huge artificial penis. In the words of the principal, he stopped the ceremony and told the dancer

“that if he ever did a thing like that again, I would put him in jail. He told me that he did not know it was wrong, that it was a Hopi custom.”

The American government was (and still is) particularly concerned with instilling an addiction to greed in American Indians. Above all, private property was to be worshipped, so the traditional practice of giving property away was deemed offensive. In Montana, the superintendent of the Fort Peck Reservation wrote about Indian dances:

“The dance itself is extremely demoralizing because when they dance they insist upon giving away property. More than one-half of these Indians if allowed to would give away all of their property. The Indian dance has a direct influence against the Church influence.”

While government agents were busy attempting to suppress traditional religious practices on the various reservations, the Indians continued to borrow non-Christian religious ideas from each other. On the Fort Peck Reservation, for example, where the Indian agent was busy trying to stop Indian dances, the Assiniboine imported what would become the Owl Dance from the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. This was primarily a social dance and it was held in secret in isolated places out of the sight of the Indian agent and other non-Indians.

One of the concerns of government officials and missionaries was the rise of a new religious movement which blended Christianity and traditional American Indian concepts. Ignoring the elements of Christianity in this new movement and focusing almost entirely on the fact that it incorporated a plant-peyote-as a sacrament, the government and the missionaries attacked the Native American Church on the basis that it somehow promoted intoxication.  Using bogus science and the paranoia of “drunken” Indians, there was a rush to create new laws at the local, state, and federal levels to ban peyote and the religion associated with it.

In Idaho, the peyote religion was brought to the Shoshone and Bannock of the Fort Hall Reservation by Shoshone spiritual leader Jack Edmo and by Sioux spiritual leader Cactus Pete. The new religion rapidly spread across the reservation and alarmed agency officials. In response, the Indian agent arrested Jack Edmo and others as he viewed peyote meetings as a form of immorality. He then contacted the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to see if he was authorized to try them for violating Indian Office Regulations against the practices of medicine men.

Indian Chiefs

At the time of the European invasion, Indian cultures differed greatly from their European counterparts in the ways in which they governed themselves. The governments of European nations tended to be based on the peculiar notion that some men (and/or families) had been endowed by God to rule over other people (i.e. the concepts of Kingship and nobility). The Europeans expected Indians to have monarchs, rulers who could tell other people what to do. From the European viewpoint, this was the only “natural” way for people to be governed.  

At the time of the European invasion, European society was based on the notion of hierarchy, a ranking of people from the highest (the nobility) to the lowest (the peasants and slaves). The highest ranking members of European society had access to food and resources that were often denied to the lower members. Furthermore, the lowest members of society were required to economically support the upper classes.

Europeans (and many modern Americans), coming from a socially stratified society saw this as natural and had difficulty perceiving and understanding any society which did not have stratification. They often assumed that people would feel insecure without stratification and so worked to change Indian societies. They often imagined stratification where there was none and also superimposed it on Indian societies through the treaty process.

While it was true that some Indian cultures had hierarchies, most did not have royalty. The present-day claims by some people that their grandmother, great-grandmother, or some other distant relative was an Indian “princess” is a reflection of Euro-American fantasies rather than any realities of Indian society.

Instead of being hierarchical, most Indian cultures tended to be egalitarian and democratic. In most American Indian societies there were no social classes and no-one had superior rights to others based on birth (i.e. the status of one’s father or mother). With regard to government, all adults-both men and women-generally had input into most decisions.

The concept of the Indian “chief” is really a European concept. Europeans felt that it was natural that the leader of the society-designated with the title “king” or “chief”-had a right to tell other people what to do. Furthermore, this person should be immediately recognizable by their dress, by the behavior of their subordinates, and by the size of their dwellings. Since most Indian societies were egalitarian, the early Europeans were often confused when they could not readily identify the Indian leaders (“chiefs”): the leaders wore the same clothing as other people, were treated the same as other people, and lived in similar dwellings.

Unlike the hereditary basis of leadership found in European societies, leadership among Indian cultures was often based on the individual’s ability to get other people to listen and follow. Oratory was one of the key elements of leadership. In addition, leaders were often expected to be generous (they often were required to feed and house all visitors).

It was common for Indian societies to have more than one leader. Among some tribes, there was a hunt leader, a war leader, a ceremonial leader, and so on. All of these leadership roles required different skills and there was no assumption that a single individual could fill all of these roles.

The Europeans, and later the American government, assumed that patrilineal descent was somehow natural, normal, and universal. That is, a son always inherited from his father. The matrilineal systems followed by many tribes, ranging from the Cherokee in the Southeast to the Iroquois in the Northeast to the Tlingit in the Northwest Coast to the Hopi in the Southwest, seemed to be beyond European comprehension. In a matrilineal system, a son would inherit from his mother’s brother, not his father. Not understanding this system, the Europeans and Americans generally assumed that when a chief died, his son would automatically become chief. In most tribes, this did not happen.

With regard to government, Indian societies ranged from very loose democracies in which all discussed important decisions to the more formal confederacies, such as that of the League of Five Nations (also called the Iroquois Confederacy). In general, cross-cultural studies suggest that communities with 500 or fewer individuals tend to be egalitarian without formal leadership roles. Most of the so-called “hunting and gathering” tribes would fall into this category. However, as population increases there is a need for a more formal governmental structure. With a population of about 2,500, societies tend to have formal, political hierarchies. With regard to American Indians, many of the agricultural tribes would fall into this group.

The Nez Perce Tribe sums up traditional Indian law and government this way:

“Over many hundreds of years, tribal governments exercised their power by declarations of war, by defining and controlling territories, by managing and allocating resources, by punishing crimes, by regulating marriages, by adoption and by conducting various other aspects of their domestic relations. This form of government relied, not upon laws written in books or interpreted in courtrooms, but upon binding oral contracts and oral agreements. Such governments did not define their territories on maps and established no governmental offices.”  

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 19th Century Indian Office

In 1824, the Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun, established the Office of Indian Affairs without Congressional authorization. He did this by appointing Thomas L. McKenney to a vacant clerkship in the War Department and then directing that all matters relating to Indians be directed through this office. In 1832 Congress authorized the appointment of a Commissioner of Indian Affairs who was to be responsible for directing and managing Indian Affairs. The Commissioner was to report to the Secretary of War.

Commissioner of Indian Affairs

The Commissioner of Indian Affairs was appointed by the President and the primary qualification for the office was support for the President and his political party. The first Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Elbert Herring, was appointed by President Andrew Jackson. He was an ardent supporter of President Jackson’s Indian removal policies and did not feel that Indians had cultures which were worth preserving. In his first report to the Secretary of War, Herring claimed the despotic rule of the chiefs and lack of a sense of private property were keeping Indians in the savage life. He suggested that the educa¬tion of the youth and “the introduction of the doctrines of the Christian religion” could overcome this savage life.

In 1850, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs described the policy of “civilizing” Indians this way:

“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.”

For the most part, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs was more concerned with non-Indian interests on Indian lands than with the Indians themselves. This was particularly true when it came to mining. In 1872, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs wrote:

“It is the policy of the government to segregate such [mineral] lands from Indian reservations as far as may be consistent with the faith of the United States and throw them open to entry and settlement in order that the Indians may not be annoyed and distressed by the cupidity of the miners and settlers who in large numbers, in spite of the efforts of the government to the contrary, flock to such regions of the country on the first report of the gold discovery.”

After Congress created the Smithsonian Institution in 1846 to fulfill the terms of the will of James Smithson, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs also became involved in obtaining materials for the museum. The Smithsonian was given custody of all federal government museum collections, including collections of Indian artifacts. The Smithsonian’s regents encouraged the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to collect items which would illustrate the history, manners, and customs of the Indians.  Some of the items obtained for the museum came from graves which were robbed by Indian agents and others.

With the notable exception of Ely Parker (a Seneca appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant), the Commissioner of Indian Affairs had little understanding of or contact with Indian cultures. The Commissioner was aided in his duties by a cadre of clerks in Washington, D.C. The field force of the Office of Indian Affairs-superintendents and agents-were primarily political appointees and a few detached soldiers.

The Field Staff:

Since those in the field were political appointees, it was not uncommon for superintendents and Indian agents to have their very first contact with an actual Indian after arriving at their post. Very few came into the job with any real understanding of the history, culture, or reality of Indian life. Their primary qualification for appointment to the position was usually faithful party service.  

Since the field staff knew that their positions were temporary-dependent on the outcome of the next election-they often misused the office for personal gain in wealth and/or politics.

Superintendents were responsible for Indians in a large geographic area. At times, this might be an entire Territory. The Indian superintendents were not only required to oversee the Indians under their jurisdiction, but also to supervise and to regulate any traders who conducted business with the Indians. It was not uncommon for the Indian superintendents to appoint the Indian agents and to select the sites for the agency’s headquarters.

Most Indian agents reported to a superintendent. Frequently the Indian agent was the only government representative actually residing with the Indians. Thus, the Indian agent occasionally engaged in the delicate tasks of diplomacy and negotiation to secure treaties with various tribes.

Indian agents, many of whom took the title of “major,” had dictatorial power on their reservation. They could have Indians arrested, whipped, and imprisoned; they could prohibit Indians from leaving the reservation; they could prohibit non-Indians from entering the reservation; they could require the Indians to attend church and to cut their hair. Within the reservation, the agent was the law and it was difficult, if not impossible, for the Indians to appeal to a higher authority.

Part of the agent’s responsibility included the distribution of annuities and supplies required to honor the treaties which had been ratified by Congress. The distribution of annuities and supplies was a profitable area for many Indian agents. They would simply open up a store in a nearby off-reservation community and stock it with supplies which the government had intended to be given to the Indians. The Indian agent might contract with some local non-Indian cattle growers to provide beef to the reservation. The weight of the cattle would be over reported and the agent would receive a “commission.”

The annuities promised to the tribes in treaties had to be shipped to the reservations. The Indian agent would often issue a shipping contract in which the actual number of miles was inflated and then receive a “commission” from the shipping company. In some instances, the agent was a silent partner in the shipping company.

The Indian agents were also responsible for “civilizing” the Indians. This usually involved government sponsored education and agricultural training programs which were based on federal policy goals, not the needs of the local tribes.

Another example of corruption can be seen in 1874 when the Commissioner of Indian Affairs persuaded President Ulysses S. Grant to restore the eastern portion of the Apache reservation in Arizona to the public domain by executive order. This portion of the reservation contained copper-bearing lands which non-Indians wished to mine. Both the Indian agent in Arizona and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs had financial holdings in the company which subsequently developed the copper mines.

Territorial governors often served as the ex-officio Superintendent of Indian Affairs for their territory. In this position, they reported to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, who, in the hierarchy of nineteenth century U.S. government, had little status. In this system, the territorial governor, in his role as Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the territory, was to report to the commissioner of Indian affairs, an inferior in the government’s hierarchy and protocol to the status of territorial governor.  This also created some conflict of interest: as superintendent of Indian affairs, the territorial governor had a fiduciary responsibility with regard to the Indian tribes, while as territorial governor there was an obligation to encourage settlement, development, and, hopefully, statehood. Many, and probably most, of the territorial governors viewed Indians as an impediment to culture, civilization, and the economic exploitation of the land.

In 1864, Sidney Edgerton was appointed as Montana’s first territorial governor and ex-officio superintendent of Indian Affairs. With regard to his Indian policy, he said:

“I trust that the Government will, at an early day, take steps for the extinguishment of the Indian title in this territory, in order that our lands may be brought into market.”

In 1891, four groups of Indian Service employees – physicians, school superintendents and assistant superintendents, school-teachers, and matrons – were placed under Civil Service Classifi¬cations. This was the initial step for the creation of a professional field staff. School Superintendent Edwin Chalcraft explains:

“Prior to this time, Indian Agents made all those appointments, but from this date they were made by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs from names submitted to him by the Civil Service Committee in Washington, D.C. These rules prohibited the dismissal of employees for political or religious beliefs, but the Appointing Officer in Washington, D.C., could remove an employee for any other cause without giving him reason for doing so.”

In 1896, President Grover Cleveland issued an executive order which placed most Indian Service employees under Civil Service classifications. Only Indian agents and inspectors were exempt from Civil Service. Indians who applied for positions in the Indian Service were exempt from Civil Service requirements.

Traditional Cherokee Government

( – promoted by navajo)

For many centuries the traditional Cherokee tribal government-a government focused on the town-had served the people well. It was not until the arrival of the Europeans with their strange notions of hierarchical governments and their inability to understand Indian nations that the traditional government began to break down.

The primary unit of government among the Cherokee was the town. Each town-perhaps 50 at the time of first European contact-was autonomous. The government of each town was not tied to the government of other towns.  

The Cherokee towns were loosely affiliated into three groups: (1) the Lower Towns on the headwaters of the Savannah River (including the towns of Keowee and Estatoe), (2) the Middle Towns on the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River (including Etchoe, Stecoe), and (3) the Upper Towns (Overhill and Valley) on the Lower Little Tennessee River and the headwater of the Hiwassee River (including Settico and Tellico).

Each Cherokee village had two governments: a white government which governed when the village was at peace, and a red government which governed during times of war. The white government included the chief who was given the title Beloved Man, the chief’s advisor, counselors from each clan, a council of elders, a speaker, messengers, and ceremonial officers. The red government included the Great War Chief, the Great War Chief’s Second, seven war counselors, a War Woman, the Chief War Speaker, messengers, ceremonial officers, and scouts. The fate of captives and war prisoners was decided by the War Woman.

The Cherokee Peace Chief was in charge of domestic issues and the ceremonial life of the town. The War Chief dealt with matters involving outsiders: not just war, but negotiations, alliances, trade, and other external matters. The colonial governments and the United States dealt almost exclusively with the War Chiefs and were often unaware of the existence of Peace Chiefs.

Each Cherokee town had a council which was an assembly of all men and women. The council met nightly in the council house which was the largest structure in the town. In the seven-sided council house people would sit with their clans, with the leaders sitting near the center. Within the council house no weapons were permitted.

Among the Cherokee, all were able to participate in the councils. The chiefs had an advisory role and their power lay in their ability to persuade through oratory. Unlike the Europeans, there was no king or prince who had coercive authority. After the chiefs spoke, each person had an opportunity to speak. Issues were discussed until consensus was reached. There was an emphasis on deliberation, on the process of reaching consensus. The council did not pass laws or regulate conduct.

With regard to the protocol of speaking and listening in the council meetings, it would have been offensive for any person to interrupt another. The focus was on gaining consensus, on listening to all opinions: it was an attempt to avoid controversy. When individuals realized that they did not agree with the majority opinion, they would often withdraw so that they would not disrupt the ability of the council to achieve consensus.

Women were important in Cherokee government because of their leadership within the matrilineal clan system. In the war council, women were present and were consulted with regard to strategy. The war women or Pretty Women had to be present at every war council. The war women were women who had themselves won previous honors in wars and they were the mothers of warriors. Within the war councils, the women played a crucial role.

One of the overriding principles in Cherokee culture that impacted traditional Cherokee government was the concept of egalitarianism. The Cherokee viewed all people as equal and from this worldview the idea of coercive government is reprehensible. Thus, leaders and the council could not force conformity on the people: they could only attempt to persuade everyone that certain actions would be for the common good.  

The Iroquois Confederacy

( – promoted by navajo)

In 1987, the United States Senate passed a resolution which acknowledged the contribution of the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations to the development of the United States Constitution. Furthermore, the resolution acknowledged the historical debt which the United States owes to the Iroquois Confederacy and to other Indian nations for the demonstration of enlightened, democratic principles of government.  

The Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the League of Five Nations and as the League of Six Nations, was formed in 1451. Deganawida, a Huron prophet, had a vision for bringing peace to the world and so he crossed the great lake in a stone canoe so that he could tell the people about his vision. However, there was a problem: Deganawida had a speech defect, a serious problem among Indian nations who held oratory in high esteem. Fortunately, he encountered the great Onondaga orator Hiawatha and convinced him to carry the message of peace to the Indian nations.

As a result of Hiawatha’s work, five autonomous Indian nations– the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk-met and buried the instruments of war. Over the hole into which they threw their hatchets, they planted a pine tree of peace. The Iroquois wampum belts recorded:

“I, Deganawida, and the union lords now uproot the tallest pine tree and into the cavity thereby made we cast all weapons of war. Into the depths of the earth, down into the deep underneath currents of water flowing to unknown regions we cast all the weapons of strife. We bury them from sight and we plant again the tree. Thus shall the Great Peace, Kayenarhekowa, be established.”

Ne Gayaneshagowa or the “Great Binding Law” became the constitution for the Haudenosounee or League of Five Nations. The new League was essentially a non-aggression pact among the five nations. The great law is based upon three great double doctrines or principles (six principles in all). The first principle stresses: (a) health of mind and body, and (b) peace among individuals and groups. The second principle stresses: (a) righteousness in conduct, including advocating this righteousness in thought and speech, and (b) equality in the adjustment of rights and obligations. The third principle stresses: (a) physical strength, power, and order, and (b) spiritual power (orenda).

The council for the League is based upon the concept of representational democracy. There were originally 50 offices filled from the member nations: 14 from the Onondaga, 10 from the Cayuga, 9 from the Oneida, 9 from the Mohawk, and 8 from the Seneca. The men who fill these offices are known as sachems.  

It was the women who first accepted the message of Deganawida,. Therefore the women had a great deal of authority. The sachems were to be selected by the clan mothers. Women also had the right to initiative, recall, and referendum.

Power in the League was seen as flowing upward, from the families to the council, rather than from the council to the families. With regard to the sachems, Deganawida is said to have advised the sachems that their skin should be seven thumbs thick so that no outrageous criticism or evil magic could pierce them.

At the meetings of the League, each of the delegates from the Five Nations sat at assigned places in accordance with their position in the confederacy. As firekeepers, the Onondaga would give the topic for discussion first to the Mohawk and Seneca. The Mohawk would then discuss the matter among themselves and then refer it to the Seneca. After discussing the issue, the Seneca would return the item to the Mohawk who would hand the item across the fire to the Younger Brothers. It would then be discussed by the Oneida and then by the Cayuga. The Oneida would then hand it back across the fire to the Mohawk who would announce the combined opinion to the Onondaga.

While speaking, the speaker would hold a wampum belt which would then be handed to the tribe being addressed. The wampum belt was a sacred substance and thus confirmed the earnest importance of a message. Without accompanying wampum, words were considered frivolous.

Traditionally, an issue would be introduced at the council on one day, but not discussed that day. At some later time it would be discussed. It is tradition that the issued be slept with prior to discussing. In practice, this allowed the sachems, who were men, to discuss the issue with their clan mothers. When they met again in council, they would speak words that reflected the wisdom of these clan mothers.

One important Iroquois custom was to document their words with wampum belts. All agreements were accompanied by wampum belts which symbolized the important points of the agreement. At later times, the belts would be brought out and “read” if the agreement needed to be discussed again.

In order to record what was said in council, the Sachem presiding over the meeting would have a handful of small sticks. A stick would be given to one of the Sachems present so that the person with the stick would be responsible for remembering what the speaker said.

In 1722, the Tuscarora petitioned the Iroquois Confederacy for membership and the League of Five Nation thus became the League of Six Nations.

During the 18th century, the English-speaking colonists were very aware of the Iroquois form of government. In 1744, representatives from the Iroquois League of Six Nations met with Pennsylvania government officials to discuss a number of matters of mutual concern. At this conference the Onondaga sachem Canassatego told the colonists, including Benjamin Franklin, that the colonies should form a confederacy similar to that of the League of Six Nations. Canassetego told  them:

“Our wise forefathers established union and amity between the Five Nations; this has made us formidable, this has given us great weight and authority with our neighboring Nations. We are a powerful Confederacy, and by your observing the same methods our wise forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh strength and power.”

In 1751, Benjamin Franklin, in an attempt to encourage a union of the colonies, noted the success of the Iroquois League of Six Nations and suggested that this might be the governmental model for the colonies. Franklin wrote:

“It would be a very strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union, and be able to execute it in such a manner, as that it has subsisted for ages, and appear indissoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies, to whom it is more necessary and must be more advantageous, and whom cannot be supposed to want an equal understanding of their interests.”

Again in 1754, Benjamin Franklin pleaded with the American colonists to emulate the Iroquois and form a government based on representational democracy.

In 1775, as the war broke out between the American colonists and the English, the Iroquois again advised the colonists to form a union similar to their League. The Continental Congress later referred openly to the Iroquois ideas of government. In a letter to the Iroquois from the Congress signed by John Hancock:

“The Six Nations are a wise people. Let us harken to their council and teach our children to follow it.”

The Iroquois gave John Hancock the name of Karanduawn which means “Great Tree.”

In 1781, the United States adopted the Articles of Confederation which called for a weak central government and powerful states. Benjamin Franklin envisioned the new country’s structure as being modeled on that of the Iroquois League. In 1787 the U.S. Constitution was adopted which was loosely inspired by the Iroquois concept of representational democracy.