Indian Treaties at the Museum of the American Indian

Almost 220 years ago, representatives of the United States and more than 1,600 people from Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy (Six Nations—Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora) gathered together near Canandaigua, New York (the Finger Lakes region) to discuss peace and friendship.

On November 11, 1794, more than 50 chiefs and sachems, including Cornplanter and Red Jacket, signed a treaty. The treaty returned substantial tracts of land to the Haudenosaunee, which it had lost a decade earlier, but restricted the Haudenosaunee from making any further land claims for themselves. George Washington’s agent, Timothy Pickering, signed for the United States.

This fall and for the next six months, an even greater number of people will be able to see the treaty at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, DC. On September 21, the museum opened the exhibition “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations.”

Eight treaties negotiated between 1790 and 1868 between the United States and Native Nations form the core of the exhibition. The original treaties are permanently housed just across the Mall at the National Archives, and one original will be rotated in the exhibition every six months. The Canandaigua Treaty, which has never before been exhibited, will be shown for the first six months.

From left: Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Oren Lyons; Tadodaho of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chief Sidney Hill; Suzan Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee), guest curator of the “Nation to Nation” exhbition; Kevin Gover (Pawnee), director of the National Museum of the American Indian; and Jim Gardner, Executive for Legislative Archives, Presidential Programs, and Museum Programs at the National Archives, welcome the Treaty of Canandaigua to the museum. (Kevin Wolf/AP Images for the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian)

From left: Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Oren Lyons; Tadodaho of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chief Sidney Hill; Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee), guest curator of the “Nation to Nation” exhibition; Kevin Gover (Pawnee), director of the National Museum of the American Indian; and Jim Gardner, Executive for Legislative Archives, Presidential Programs, and Museum Programs at the National Archives, welcome the Treaty of Canandaigua to the museum. (Kevin Wolf/AP Images for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian)

 

At least two original treaties were prepared and signed at Canandaigua. The Haudenosaunee original is kept at the Ontario Historical Society and displayed on Treaty Day every year. The United States original was brought back to Philadelphia, the U.S. capital at that time. Previously, President Washington had established the precedent of handling agreements with Indian nations in the same way as those with any foreign nation; such agreements were therefore subject to the ratification requirements laid out in the Constitution.

The President sent the agreements to the U.S. Senate for its advice and consent, and on January 9, 1795, the Senate gave its approval. The President proceeded to ratify the treaty 12 days later. To signify ratification, two separate pieces of parchment were attached to the existing treaty (also on parchment), the latter reading in part:

Now, Know Ye, that I having seen and considered the said treaty do by and with the advice and consent of the Senate of the United States accept ratify and confirm the same and every article and clause thereof. In testimony whereof, I have caused the seal of the United States to be here unto affixed and signed the same with my hand.

The Secretary of State, Edmund Randolph, signed as witness, and a paper wafer of the Great Seal of the United States was applied next to Washington’s signature.

Earlier, under the Articles of Confederation and the Confederation Congress, the national government had had great difficulty in setting a stable and effective Indian policy. In 1789, as the United States Government struggled to get on its feet with the new Constitution, George Washington’s Secretary of War Henry Knox wrote in a report:

The Indians, being the prior occupants, possess the right of the soil. It cannot be taken from them unless by their free consent, or by the right of conquest in case of a just war. To dispossess them on any other principle, would be a gross violation of the fundamental laws of nature, and of that distributive justice which is the glory of a nation.”

A few years later, Washington himself was sympathetic in his expressed policy toward treatment of Indians in a letter to his Attorney General Edmund Randolph:

It is my wish and desire that you would examine the Laws of the General Government which have relation to Indian affairs, that is, for the purpose of securing their lands to them; Restraining States or Individuals from purchasing their lands, and forbidding unauthorized intercourse in their dealing with them. And moreover, that you would suggest such auxiliary Laws as will supply the defects of those which are in being, thereby enabling the Executive to enforce obedience.

Letter from George Washington to Edmund Randolph, October 10, 1791 (General Records of the Department of State. RG 59)

Letter from George Washington to Edmund Randolph, October 10, 1791 (General Records of the Department of State. RG 59)

 

Sadly, Washington’s policy was soon overwhelmed after the Louisiana Purchase Treaty in 1803, followed by Manifest Destiny, multiple wars, and Indian removal to reservations in the west under Andrew Jackson beginning the 1830s.

Andrew Jackson Message to Congress, December 6, 1830 (Records of the United States Senate, RG 46)

Andrew Jackson’s message to Congress, December 6, 1830 (Records of the United States Senate, RG 46)

AJ Indian Removal 109

Andrew Jackson’s message to Congress, December 6, 1830 (Records of the United States Senate, RG 46)

 

The main case in “Nation to Nation” will feature these original treaties:

September 2014–February 2015 Treaty of Canandaigua, 1794

March 2015–August 2015 Muscogee Treaty, 1790

September 2015–February 2016 Horse Creek Treaty, 1851

March 2016–August 2016 Treaty with the Potawatomi, 1836

September 2016–January 2017 Unratified California Treaty K, 1852

February 2017–July 2017 Medicine Creek Treaty, 1854

August 2017–January 2018 Treaty with the Potawatomi, 1809

In the National Archives, there are a total of 367 ratified treaties between the United States and various Native American nations. In the same series are handwritten and printed copies of treaties reached with one or more American colonies between 1722 and 1768. The treaties were kept at the Department of State until they were transferred to the National Archives in the late 1930s.

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