There have been over 500 treaties made between the United States and Native Americans. And there have been over 500 treaties broken. Why?
In this article, I will concentrate on relations with those tribes east of the Mississippi—the “civilized tribes”—and five points in time that I think best illustrate how relations have gone from cooperative and respectful to intolerant and disrespectful.
Senate Resolution 76 (1987) reads:
“The confederation of the original 13 colonies into one republic was influenced by the political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the constitution itself.“
The resolution is based on the relationship the Iroquois Confederacy had with the Founding Fathers. For decades, the Iroquois had urged the English colonists to unite together as one independent and free people based on the Iroquois Confederacy.
In 1776, the Founding Fathers invited delegates from the Iroquois Confederacy to the Continental Congress during the writing of the Declaration of Independence and drafting of the Constitution of the United States to advise them.
What did the Founding Fathers hope to learn from the Iroquois Confederacy?
First, let’s take a look at the tribes east of the Mississippi as they were when the Europeans started migrating to America. Most of us have formed our opinion of what Native Americans were liked based on Hollywood’s preoccupation with Westerns and the Plains Indians. They were a Noble people, but lived a primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
The Eastern Indians, on the other hand, were an agricultural society that built permanent houses and cities and had sophisticated and complex governments. For example, let us compare the Cherokee form of government to the US government. Both have/had an Executive Branch, Legislative Branch, and Judicial Branch.
The Cherokee Executive Branch had two “presidents”, a Peace Chief and a War Chief. In times of peace the Peace Chief flew his white flag above the council house and was in charge. In times of war, the white flag was taken down and the red flag raised and the War Chief took over.
In the diagram of the Cherokee Council House, note that there were benches encircling it reserved for the general public. The three white benches, recreated in the drawing by T. E. Mails, were reserved for the Uku, the High Priest, the Peace Chief, and their spokesman. The white benches radiating out from the three main benches were reserved for the clan priests, respected elders, and Beloved Women.
Inside the white benches were three red benches where the War Chief, the Raven (top military general) and their spokesman sat. the red benches radiating out from them were reserved for the top military leaders.
There were complex rules governing how legislation should be submitted, debated, modified and voted upon.
The Judicial Branch was composed of the Beloved Women, women who had gained the respect and admiration of the tribe. As an example, war prisoners were brought to the Beloved Women and they decided whether to throw them off a cliff or send them home to their mothers.
In 1142 or, perhaps 1451, the Mohawks, Cayuga, Onondaga, Seneca, and Oneida tribes decided to form a confederacy. The dates are based on the fact that we know a total eclipse occurred at the time. The Great Law of Peace was conceived by Dekanawidah, known as “The Great Peacemaker” and his spokesman Hiawatha.
This constitution which contained over a hundred articles dealt with three main principles:
- Managing Peace
- Equity or Justice
- Respecting the wisdom of the elders
Many articles also dealt with the ceremony itself, but the details for how to present legislation, how it was reviewed by all parties, how it was judged by the elders, how it could be modified, and how it was voted upon was explicitly described.
The Great Law of Peace was preserved over the several hundred years orally and on wampum belts.
So, the details of this Confederacy was of great interest to the Founding Fathers trying to put together a confederacy of united states. But despite the cooperation and mutual respect exhibited at the Continental Congress in 1776, good relations between the US and Native Americans would not last.
I think it was because of three main points of contention, a tragedy of conflicting expectations. First, the Europeans brought to America a completely “foreign” concept—the sovereign right of individual land ownership. Native Americans believed that “no one owns that land.”
Second, from the beginning the US has seen itself as the “great melting pot” where immigrants came and assimilated to experience the American dream. The Native Americans believed in the preservation of the culture and respect for tradition.
Third, even though both understood the concept of “boundaries”, the point of contention was over where the boundaries should be drawn, how long the boundaries should last, and who had jurisdiction within the boundaries.
In addition to these points of contention, I should discuss the conflicting attitudes towards the Indians. At this point in history, they were often referred to as a “Noble Savage”. The oxymoron expressed a unity that was not there. Some saw them as “noble”, others as “savages”. Benjamin Franklin deplored the use of the term “savages” for Native Americans: “Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the perfection of civility; they think the same of theirs”.
Charles Dickens had quite another opinion, “To come to the point at once, I beg to say that I have not the least belief in the Noble Savage. I consider him a prodigious nuisance and an enormous superstition. … I call him a savage, and I call a savage a something highly desirable to be civilized off the face of the earth….”
Note: Charles Dickens, of course, lived in England. He expressed this opinion while travelling in the United States around 1842. I have used his quote because I think it so aptly expresses the attitude of those who saw the Indian as a savage.
Washington’s Six-Point Acculturation Plan.
Concerned that the Native American would resist assimilation and worried that this resistance would cause conflict, George Washington devised a plan for the acculturation of the Noble Savage:
- impartial justice toward Native Americans
The Dicken’s group probably did not understand this point.
2. regulated buying of Native American lands
the Native Americans probably didn’t understand this point (why regulate something that no one owns)
3. promotion of commerce
After the revolution the US wanted to be the Indian’s primary trade partner replacing Great Britain, France and Spain.
4. promotion of experiments to civilize and improve Native American society
5. presidential authority to give presents
4 and 5 go together. Washington wanted to give women the spinning wheel and me the plow and oxen. Native Americans had been farming for hundreds of years, but they were uncivilized in the eyes of European Americans because 1. Women did the farming, and 2. They only raised what they needed. Washington wanted the men to become commercial farmers and women to tend to the household.
6. punishing those who violated Native American rights.
This six-point plan was the beginning and set the standard for the future. Read Part II for the rest of the story.