Tribal treaties are said to never have been honored by the United States. Native communities from around the continent will state this, and it is a common enough understanding of scholars of Native history. The United States has, during the past 200+ years reneged on, dissociated, or deliberately failed to follow the agreements of the treaties for all tribes that have them. Without yet proving this statement, I will detail why I believe this to be the case.
Treaties are considered by legal scholars and most history experts to be part and parcel of the supreme law of the land because the Supremacy clause of theConstitution of the United States states this.
The Supremacy Clause of the Constitution of the United States (Article VI, Clause 2), establishes that “the Constitution, federal laws made pursuant to it, and treaties made under its authority, constitute the “supreme Law of the Land”…”
This is a truism and the United States and its agents need to have followed the laws, including the provisions of the ratified treaties for every tribe with such a document. But in too many cases of history, cases identified and many yet to be identified, the federal government has failed to appropriately follow the provisions of the treaties. In a number of cases, that I have identified in essays in this blog, federal agents failed to give appropriate administration of tribes on reservations, in many cases people starved, did not have housing, did not have appropriate health care. In other cases, I have identified that the promised Indian allotments to be given to the tribes did not occur (Unofficially) for at least 20 years (The Thompson allotments), and did not officially occur until 1889 which tribal people gained the Dawes allotments.
So for hundreds, perhaps thousands of peoples on at least two reservations, Grand Ronde and the Coast Reservation, many people failed to get appropriate services promised under their ratified treaties in the remainder of their lifetimes and they died without gaining their promised rights and services. It took two to three generations before the federal government acted to allocate the land. Then under the Dawes Act, many native people were left out of allotments if they did not satisfy residency on a reservation, or did not have enough Indian blood quantum. Neither of these provisions of allotments was part of the original agreements in the treaties. These constitute new policies that Indian Agents in the same areas followed to the letter.
Similarly, most treaties specified that schools would be built and education would be a service. But education funding was inconsistent. I documented many cases where a school would be open for a few months and then closed due to lack of funds. The on-reservation day schools were very inconsistent, which is likely why the federal government began boarding schools. First, the boarding schools were established on reservations, but as it was too expensive to pay for a boarding school for every reservation, they were set up off-reservation in central locations and took in students from an expansive land base. Chemawa Indian school had students from Alaska, Oregon, the Southwest, and the Plains. Boarding schools were seen as more effective ways to assimilate native students to American culture. Assimilation policy was similarly not explicitly a part of the treaties, it was a policy of the Education program of the Indian Office. Instead, the treaties mentioned farming, education and schools, and sometimes Christian organizations, all of which were used as agents and tactics of assimilation unbeknownst to the tribes who signed the treaties.
Federal records do list a number of payments to the tribes for the first five years, which was the normal period for payments, then there are detailed reports of payments for an additional 20 years for education and other services. After 20 years, all funding for the reservations and the tribes were part of the responsibilities of the federal government promised in treaties. The amount allocated each year was a political process involving the House of Representatives, the Senate and the President. Each administration had its own Indian policies and so tribal peoples had to adjust to new federal policies every four years on average.
Much of the problems caused by annual federal payments to reservations, or annuity payments, could have been dealt with early on if every Native who was a party to a ratified treaty became a US citizen. But citizenship was not bestowed on most natives until 1924 when the Indian citizenship act was passed. So the tribes were forced to live under full federal administration for at least 68 years in Oregon (1856-1924), and longer periods for other tribes in the east. If citizenship has been bestowed from the beginning, tribal peoples, disgusted with their treatment on poorly managed reservations would have left to integrate into the cities and the “Indian Problems” would have been solved much faster. This was actually happening in many ways in the earliest days of the reservations, as families and bands chose to illegally leave and return to their homelands from 1856 into the 1870s. But settler Americans knew that it was illegal for Indians to be off reservations and had very racist attitudes against the savage and heathen Indians and would have the Indian attested and sent back to the reservations.
Racism against the Indian peoples as a race is really the problem for Natives on the reservations. White Americans did not want to share the land with the Native peoples and so jealously guarded against them owning any land. This seems like a further extension of the Manifest Destiny notions, that the West and Oregon was not only to be the “promised land” of the white Americans to extend their country to the Pacific but that it was also their right to keep undesirables from their neighborhoods too. Under this notion, the Chinese workers, Japanese, Blacks, Latinos and Native Peoples were kept from gaining a foothold as citizens of the state, kept from voting, and kept from full citizenship for many decades. This practice intentionally disadvantaged all minority peoples, and privileged whites until federal and state policies liberalized. It’s no wonder that the majority of wealth is owned by white people in the region today and many are the descendants and recipients of 70 years or more of privileged treatment by the lands of the state and the federal government.
I think Molalla Chief Crooked Finger may have foresaw the disempowerment of his people and that his people would never see the money and rights and services offered during the 1851 treaties of the Willamette Valley. He stated that he would rather have all of the money promised now, so he could do as he pleased,
Crooked Finger said they did not want goods etc. as the Callapooyas had agreed to take, nor did he want to payments made in the way proposed. He said we wanted the payments made at once, and all of it money.
Judge Skinner said that it was better to take the money as annuities to pay their “Red Children” in that way.
Crooked Finger said that the whites when they first came here, and up to within a short time since, had always told them that the Great Father would pay them for their lands, and that they had believed them. He said the time had now come, that the Great Father had sent out three chiefs to trade with them, and they had met in council. We are now ready, he said, to trade with the chiefs and we want our payments made as we wish. That they were dieing [sic] off very fast, and would not live long enough to receive their payments, in the way proposed. Crooked Finger said he wanted the whole amount paid in money, then, they could buy what they wished. Crooked Finger said he wished the Great Father and the commissioners to be pleased, and that they wished to be pleased themselves, and they wanted to be paid in money.
Governor Gains said explained that the board is now acting by instructions from the Great Father, and could not do otherwise than as was proposed. [even though later they accept the proposal of a permanent reservation for the tribes in their own territory, which is against the instructions]
Crooked Finger said that the board could write to the Great Father and tell him the Moolalla’s [sic] wanted it different. tell him we want it in money, and not like the Callapooyas. (1851 Northern Molalla Treaty Transcript)
Crooked Finger knew that he and perhaps all of his people would not live long enough to get all of the money and services promised. This treaty of the Molallas in 1851 was never ratified, and Crooked Finger did not live to see the next negotiations in 1855. The Molalla who survived did go to the Grand Ronde reservation in 1856 for about five years, then in about 1860 about half of them left the reservation to return to their homes and never returned. The final promises made by Joel Palmer in Spring of 1856, to get the Molallas to go peacefully to Grand Ronde, were never carried out because Palmer was fired soon after. The Molallas have the story of the promises of Palmer,
Palmer said, I will take you westwards. The chiefs said, “Why will you take us? “The treaty chief told them, “I’m assembling all the other people in the same way.“ “I’ll give you food, all kinds of food.“ “You’ll eat lots of meat.“”I’ll give you all blankets, and I’ll give shoes to the men, and likewise to the women.“”I’ll give you horses.“ “I’ll give you cattle.“”Now answer me, and I’ll take you along tomorrow.“ All the Molalla didn’t want to go. They said, “We will never leave.“ “We don’t want to give up our country.“ General Palmer brought lots of soldiers. Then now he told them, “Get ready. “The Molalla said, “We will never get ready.“ “I’ll kill you all if you don’t get ready.“ “The Molalla are ready for war now.“ They fought all evening, only half a day. Then the treaty chief sent word. “Now I’ll buy the land from you.“ Then he told them, “I’ll give you this much money.” (The sum was $46,000.) Then the Molalla agreed. Then it was all right now. Then finally now the Molalla began to get ready. (Jacobs)
The failure of the federal government to honor the promises of Palmer likely caused the Molallans to distrust the word of the United States Agents. This is a story that has played out on many reservations in many time periods across North America. The final straws may very well have been the terminations of tribes in the 1950s and 1960s, when reservations promised in the treaties, to be “permanent” reservations for the tribes were sold and tribes lost the majority of their rights as Native peoples. In this period, tribal rights to hunting and fishing are assumed to be taken away, but after tribes challenged this interpretation, the tribes win the rights to fish in their usual ways.
In short, Chief Crooked Finger may have been right all along, and if the federal government had just done what he wanted, we may have avoided many of the issues we have today. If tribal peoples had been given rights as citizens and racist policies had not prevailed we would be living a different present. We cannot change the past, but we can change our future as we learn lessons from the past.
Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD
PhD Anthropology (UO 2009) and Native history researcher. Member of the Grand Ronde Tribe, Takelma, Chinook, Molalla, and Santiam Kalapuya ancestry. Owner of Ethnohistory Research LCC, professional consultant and project researcher.
I teach at local universities and colleges and take contracts with tribes, local governments and nonprofits. I have experience in archival organization, museum development, exhibit curation, traditional cultural property nomination, tribal ethnohistoric research, tribal maps, traditional ecological knowledge, and presentations to large and small gatherings. Contact me for consultation about any of these projects.