Haudenosaunee Tadadaho (head chief) of all the Six Nations, Sid Hill, and Faithkeeper Oren Lyons, examine the encased Treaty of Canandaigua on the day it was installed in the Nation to Nation exhibition, September 2014. Their ancestors witnessed and signed the Treaty, and their DNA is on it. (Photo: National Museum of the American Indian)
Sovereignty is sovereignty, treaties are treaties, and nation to nation is between and among sovereigns

There’s a widespread notion that “tribal sovereignty” and “Indian treaties” are legal, historical, practical and correct terms. Actually, sovereignty is sovereignty, and treaties are treaties, nation to nation is between and among sovereigns; the use of “tribal” or “Indian” or any modifier is both misleading and belittling.

A two-year research project, Reclaiming Native Truth, released its final report in May on a number of topics, including sovereignty, and found: “Sovereignty was poorly understood across all stakeholder groups in our study — from elected officials and policymakers to influencers from other fields to the general public. There was added confusion about the concept of more than 600 sovereign nations within the United States and about how tribes can be both sovereign nations and ‘reliant on the government.’”

Reclaiming Native Truth calls this misunderstanding “one of the most damaging, fueling many of the negative narratives and misperceptions, including the notion that Native Americans are receiving government benefits just for being Native.”

It is not generally understood that the treaties, sovereign agreements and treaty adjustment laws provide for the ongoing needed services and benefits for Native Nations. This is a small price for the United States to pay for having territory over which to govern and water and other riches to use. Native lands were shared and ceded in perpetuity, so payments, or services and programs, are to continue forever, as well.

Whenever a non-Native person makes the unfortunate statement that the benefits need to end (which happens at least once an hour in every time zone), a Native person responds, “Okay. Give us our land back.” If promises are broken and it’s the end of one side of a deal, it’s the end of the other side, too.

Thanks to the Reclaiming Native Truth project, there is data to show that most Americans know little to nothing abouttreaties between Native Nations and the United States, even though they are U.S. citizens’ treaties, too. Even more troubling, most do not know that or how the sovereignty of Native Nations and European Nations legitimized the sovereignty of the United States. Reclaiming Native Truth’s research and findings establish that this profound and widespread ignorance has far-reaching negative consequences in all areas of governance, economic development and health and well-being of our Native Peoples.

Reclaiming Native Truth’s research shows hope. For instance, it demonstrates that, when presented with a narrative that educates on the value of and values inherent in the treaties signed between the United States and Native Nations, support for laws that uphold tribal sovereignty increases by 16 percent. This may seem like a negligible margin. But, at a time when one percent of the national vote has meant the difference between one presidential candidate, who seemed indifferent to sovereign rights of Native Nations, and another, who seemed hostile and affirmed the Jacksonian campaigns to eradicate sovereign rights altogether, it becomes quite clear that Reclaiming Native Truth is on to something.

Benjamin Franklin inspired by the Six Nations’ confederacy

Ben Franklin’s publication on Indian Treaties. (Library of Congress)

The following information is offered in that spirit of hope in the power of learning. And, begging the indulgence of the reader, kudos to those who can find some facts they never knew before.

It often is thought that sovereignty, land and rights were given or granted to Native Peoples by Europeans and Americans, even though no one brought any land with them when they came to our countries, and despite the fact that we enjoyed freedom, human rights and healthy lives long before their arrival.

Our governmental, jurisprudential and cultural systems were traditions of, by and for the people long before contact with non-Natives. While a united nations system was dreamt of in Europe, the first working models Europeans ever encountered were here, among myriad others, in the Council of Three Fires (Anishinaabe, Odawa, Potawatomi); the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Six Nations (Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Tuscarora); the Lenape Clans and Nations; and the Muscogee (Creek) Confederacy of 60+ Nations and Towns.

Printer and publisher and U.S. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin was inspired by the Native confederations’ governance model and diplomacy, and printed the book, Indian Treaties, 1736-1762. After reading Archibald Kennedy’s 1751 pamphlet,The Importance of Gaining and Preserving the Friendship of the Indians to the British Interest Considered, Franklin wrote, “I am of the opinion that securing the Friendship of the Indians is of the greatest consequence for these Colonies.”

Franklin credited Canassatego, Onondaga, a leader of the Six Nations Iroquois, with advising the Thirteen Colonies – in a 1775 Council in Philadelphia — to confederate the Colonies in common defense and union, as the Haudenosaunee had done. It sometimes is said that American democracy also came from the Six Nations’ model; but, unlike Native democracy, the U.S., at first and for a long time, enfranchised only white male property-owners and did not allow half of its people to vote: the women.

Using his sardonic voice and employing a common prejudicial term, Franklin wrote: “It would be a very strange thing if Six Nations of Ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union and be able to execute it in such a manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble, and yet a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies.”

Foreign kingdoms once believed and some still do that sovereignty is top-down, passed from deities to monarchs, with none for the people outside the royals, nobles and ministers of state. Native Nations and other representative democracies hold sovereignty as a collective inherent right, meaning national powers derive from the people as a whole and sovereignty emanates from within, not from any outside largess or force.

Haudenosaunee leaders at the National Press Club in 2010 with the Wampum Belt (Washington Belt) and the Parchment Treaty. There are two originals, one that remains with the Haudenosaunee, and the second with the National Archives. (Courtesy Suzan Harjo)

Sovereignty is the act thereof


As Haudenosaunee Faithkeeper Oren Lyons, Onondaga & Seneca, defines it, “Sovereignty is the act thereof.”

Native Nations respected each other’s sovereignty and made treaties for millennia before Europeans landed here and then made treaties with their countries. Many Native Nations made treaties with England, France, Netherlands, Spain and other foreign Nations before the existence of the United States.

Most pre-Revolutionary War treaties, between 1722 and 1774, were little more than temporary settlement of centuries-long feuds and wars among European powers, which they brought with them to this red quarter of Mother Earth. These treaties illustrate the tug-of-war tactics of European countries and the colonies to convince Native Nations to side with them or to maintain neutrality.

Euro-American treaties with Native Nations were requisite to acquiring territory and safe passage. Pre-Revolutionary War treaties were essential to establishing allies, trade and peaceful dealings. Post-war treaties were vital to gaining recognition of the sovereignty of the fledgling United States.

These goals were of such great importance that, in preparing for and to win the Revolutionary War in June of 1776, the Thirteen Colonies’ Continental Congress named three committees to draft the highest priority items. The Model Treaty was one of them. The other two were the Declaration of Independenceand the Articles of Confederation.

Of the five Founding Fathers who wrote the treaties template, the principal author was John Adams of Massachusetts. He was a lawyer, farmer, diplomat, first U.S. vice president and second U.S. president. Another drafter was Benjamin Harrison V of Virginia. A state governor, speaker, and planation owner; he was the father and great-grandfather of two U.S. presidents, who championed treaty-making with Cherokee, Chickasaw, Muscogee and other Nations.

Three Pennsylvanians rounded out the treaty committee: John Dickenson, attorney and politician, who was a Delaware delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Benjamin Franklin, who was an author, diplomat, inventor, musician, editor, political theorist, postmaster, scientist and slave-owner-turned-abolitionist.Robert Morris, a free-trading financier with his own navy, who gave and secured major financing, ships and supplies for the Revolution; served as U.S. Agent of Marine and Superintendent of Finance; and co-designed the federal banking system with Alexander Hamilton of New York.

Both Adams and Franklin also were on the five-member committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, with lead author, Founder Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, the first U.S. secretary of state and third U.S. president. Harrison chaired the Committee of the Whole, which oversaw the delegates’ editing and amending of the Declaration; and Dickenson chaired the 13-member committee on the Articles of Confederation.

The Model Treaty anticipated securing peace, friendship, trade and alliance with Nations, rather than with individuals, starting with those that had treaties with Great Britain or other European countries. The first Early Recognized Treaties was The Great Treaty of 1722, among the Provinces of New York, New Jersey and Territories and the Five Iroquois Nations, which the British note taker spelled Mohogs, Oneydes, Onondages, Cayuges & Sinnekees.

As soon as the Continental Congress adopted the Model Treaty on September 24, 1776, it returned to parties to the Pre-Revolutionary War Treaties to gain or lock in agreements and alliances, and to get Native Nations to side with or be neutral in the American Revolution. The earliest Treaties were efforts by the Continental Congress to agree to respect the sovereignty or at least recognize the existence of the United States. Franklin was dispatched to the Kingdom of France with the Model Treaty, and the U.S. made the Treaty with the Lenape, the Delaware Nation. The French and Lenape allies in the ongoing war were the first and second nations to make treaties with the U.S., in 1778, followed by the third in 1782 with the Dutch Republic, and the fourth in 1783 with Sweden.

After the 1783 Second Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War, the U.S. sought and secured treaties with the nations of the Haudenosaunee, Lenape, Wyandot, Council of Three Fires (and, later, with Sauk), Kingdom of Prussia, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Shawnee, Kingdom of Morocco, Muscogee (Creek), Plankeshaw, Kaskaskia, Miami, Eel River, Wea and Kickapoo. Additionally, the U.S. made a treaty with Seven Nations of Canada — Akwesasne Mohawk, Kahnawake Mohawk, Anishnaabeg (Algonquin and Nipissing), Oka, Odanak Abenaki, Becancour Abenaki, Jeune-Lorette Wyandot and Oswegatchie Onondaga.

Even after the War of Independence, nations around the world recognized the sovereignty of Native Nations, but did not know or understand the sovereignty of the United States. Sovereignty of and Treaties with Native Nations helped the United States establish itself as a viable diplomatic force and recognized country within the international community of nations. But, for some reason, most Americans do not know this.

The 1782 George Washington Peace Medal, which Seneca Chief Red Jacket always wore in public, commemorating early Treaties between the U.S. and the Haudenosaunee. (Library of Congress)

U.S. relations with Native Nations were such a high priority that President George Washington met regularly with Native leaders, including providing a detailed explanation to the Seneca Nation that the first U.S. Indian law, the Nonintercourse Act of July 22, 1790, was “security for the remainder of your lands.” Acknowledging that “the six Nations have been led into some difficulties with respect to the sale of their lands since the peace,” he said that “these evils arose before the present government of the United States was established, when the separate States and individuals under their authority, undertook to treat with the Indian tribes respecting the sale of their lands.”

Washington drove home the point by saying that “the case is now entirely altered. The general Government only has the power, to treat with the Indian Nations, and any treaty formed and held without its authority will not be binding….No State nor person can purchase your lands, unless at some public treaty held under the authority of the United States. The general government will never consent to your being defrauded. But it will protect you in all your just rights.” Washington personally negotiated some treaties, most notably the 1790 Treaty of New York between the U.S. and Muscogee Nations, some of which was treated with the Muscogee delegates over dinner at his home in New York City, then the U.S. Capitol.

The U.S. Constitution makes clear that once a treaty is signed by the President and ratified by the Senate, it becomes the “supreme law of the land.” The U.S. has signed more than 500 treaties with Native Nations and has broken provisions of them all. There is a disconnect between the law enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and the law upheld in many U.S. courts and federal agencies.

What happened? Treaties were made between the U.S. and Native Nations that suited the goals of all parties — the U.S. was gaining territory over which to govern (which it certainly was not getting from the powerful colonies-turned-states) and Native Nations were gaining security that the general government would defend against encroachments and deprivations by the states, Americans and Europeans.

Thomas Jefferson Peace Medal, 1801, owned by Powder Face, Arapaho. (Photo by Walter Larrimore, National Museum of the American Indian.)

Powerful states, bad faith, and pandering


How did the U.S. go from an intellectual core of leaders who knew sovereignty, treaties, history and law to those who made anti-Indian pronouncements and genocidal policy because they did not know or did not care? Some U.S. leaders started pandering to the citizens’ and immigrants’ voracious appetite for personal property and wealth, especially after leaders of Georgia, New York and other powerful states started militating against the general government to get Indians out of “their” lands. Other U.S. leaders attempted to control the states’ excesses by returning Indian lands in treaties, and gaining Native agreement that certain lands were federal, not state territory.

In 1803, the U.S. purchased the immense Louisiana Territory from France, comprising lands that now include all of Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma; most of the Mississippi River and Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota; much of Colorado, Louisiana, Montana, New Mexico, Texas and Wyoming; and some of the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Native Nations were not parties to the Louisiana Purchase, even though nearly all the territory involved Native land. This set off a flurry of treaty-making between the U.S. and Native Nations, resulting in both written and unwritten Treaties. At the same time, it lifted the pressure from the U.S. to immediately gain more land and challenge the existing states’ bad faith with Native Peoples.

Art reflects Andrew Jackson’s view of American Indians as “children.” (Library of Congress)

Because many treaties were being broken by state action and federal inaction, some Native Nations sided with the British in the War of 1812, spawning a generation of Indian-fighters and states-righters, such as Brevet Major General Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, who captured Indian policy posts in Congress and then won the White House. Jackson fought the “Creek War” during the War of 1812; the Muscogee Confederacy split, with some fighting with the British, others with the U.S. and still others remaining neutral. Jackson did not discriminate and fought them all, using other Native Peoples to win the Battle of Horseshoe Bend of March 1814,and to cut off the noses for a count of the fallen Creek warriors.

Jackson was the U.S. military treaty commissioner who coerced the U.S.-Creek Treaty of Fort Jackson,Wetumpka Muscogee Territory, of August 1814, which purported to cede 23 million acres of Muscogee lands in present-day Alabama and Georgia. The 1814 Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812 between the U.S. and the United Kingdom, mandated the return of all lands to their pre-War boundaries. While boundaries were restored for all other Native lands in the north and south, only the Muscogee lands were not returned and the 1814 Jackson Treaty remained in place, in violation of the Treaty of Ghent.

Jackson had reason besides Indian-hating for disrespecting the Treaty of Ghent. It was signed December 24, 1814, ratified by the U.K. on December 30; then ratified and proclaimed by the U.S. on February 17 & 18, 1815. Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815, after the Treaty of Ghent was signed by the parties and ratified by the U.K, and after other fighting ended. Jackson’s post-War battle catapulted him to national prominence and he took credit for ending the War that ended a month before his battle. He disclaimed any prior knowledge that the War was over, lest his military victory and hero status be delegitimized, and Congress awarded him a Congressional Gold Medalin February 1815: “For the defense of New Orleans.”

Jackson devoted much of his congressional and presidential tenure to undoing the pre- and post-War Native land boundaries and moving Native Peoples to the west of the Mississippi. In Congress, Jackson, his former aide de camp and other Indian-fighters developed the Indian removal scheme when they controlled the Indian Affairs Committees, and Jackson’s first presidential address to Congress of December 8, 1829, called for its enactment:

“Professing a desire to civilize and settle them, we have…thrust them farther into the wilderness….and the Indians….have retained their savage habits. A portion, however, of the Southern tribes, having mingled much with the whites and made some progress in the arts of civilized life, have lately attempted to erect an independent government within the limits of Georgia and Alabama (which) claiming to be the only sovereigns within their territories, extended their laws over the Indians, which induced the latter to call upon the (U.S.) for protection.”

Georgia and Alabama were a big part of Jackson’s base, and he made their case for removing Indians from “state” land. At the same time, he upheld his 1814 Fort Jackson Treaty dispossessing the Muscogee Nations and dismissed the Treaty of Ghent’s restoration of 1812 land boundaries, by not mentioning either one.

“Georgia became a member of the Confederacy…as a sovereign State….Alabama was admitted into the Union on the same footing with the original States….” Holding forth that his base states do not have “less power over the Indians within their borders than is possessed by Maine or New York,” his Message went on: “I informed the Indians inhabiting parts of Georgia and Alabama that their attempt to establish an independent government would not be countenanced by the Executive…and advised them to emigrate beyond the Mississippi or submit to the laws of those States.”

Blaming his predecessors, U.S policies and the Native Peoples for the situation, Jackson said: “Our ancestors found them the uncontrolled possessors of these vast regions. By persuasion and force they have been made to retire from river to river and from mountain to mountain, until some of the tribes have become extinct and others have left but remnants to preserve for a while their once terrible names. Surrounded by the whites with their arts of civilization, which by destroying the resources of the savage doom him to weakness and decay….

“It is too late to inquire whether it was just in the (U.S.) to include them and their territory within the bounds of new States, whose limits they could control. That step can not be retraced. A State can not be dismembered by Congress or restricted in the exercise of her constitutional power.”

Congress passed the Indian Removal Act a mere five months later, which is lightning speed for substantive law, and Jackson signed it on May 28, 1830. It applied to Native Peoples north and south, to friend and foe alike, resulting in the Potawatomi Trail of Death, the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the Navajo and countless other Long Walks. The Act required treaties, but the coercion and forced removals exposed as a sham its nod to sovereignty and treaties. The Muscogee Nations never signed a removal treaty, but were wrenched from their homelands and moved at bayonet point to Indian Territory (now, Oklahoma) anyway. The trauma of removal is so great and present in Muscogee and other citizens of removed Nations that many are Republicans today because Jackson was a Democrat.


Indian removal continued, but so did new treaties


Removals continued throughout the 1800s, but so did new treaties and agreements among sovereigns, illustrating that history is rife with contradictions and inconsistencies. In 1850-1851, U.S. and Native Nations made new treaties for passage through and limited outposts in the Great Plains and for land and fishing, gathering and hunting rights in the Pacific Northwest and Columbia River Basin. At the same time, California’s state leadership vehemently opposed treaties already concluded and sent to the Senate by the U.S. treaty commissioners. The Senate approved the other treaties but voted not to ratify those made with Native Peoples in California, leaving them without the promised security and protection of the U.S. and making them victims of bloodbaths by miners and gold rushers.

Removals and gold fever in Colorado, Oregon, South Dakota and elsewhere led directly to further attempted undermining of sovereignty and breaking of new and old treaties; and to the dehumanizing, destabilizing land-grabs, under the guise of fulfilling the treaty term, “arts of civilization.” Through congressional Civilization Funds, executive franchises were granted to Christian churches to proselytize to specific Indian Tribes for the entire century that started in 1800. The Civilization Regulations (1880s-1930s) criminalized all Native traditions, ceremonies, roaming away from the reservations and interfering with “progressive education” of the children, meaning: isolating them from their families, detribalizing and deculturalizing them, cutting their hair and washing their mouths and eyes with lye soap or beating them with boards and whips for not speaking English or failing to pray in a Christian way.

In the midst of all this civilization, the 1887 General Allotment Actand similar laws tried to “civilize” and “assimilate” Native Peoples and to abolish Native national ownership of land; parcels were allotted to individual Native persons and the “excess” lands were opened to land-rushing white settlers. In the nearly 50 years of Allotmentuntil its end in 1934 by the Franklin Roosevelt Administration, two-thirds of Native Peoples’ lands were lost to taxes and banks, and from thefts and shady deals by railroad and utility owners and speculators in land, water, oil, timber, mining, stocks and crops.

Throughout the half-century of the rule of Civilization, federal bureaucrats issued directives to agents and soldiers in the field to “undertake a careful propaganda” against religious ceremonies and dances, which they did with great vigor. Ancestors and graves were robbed; sacred places were desecrated; and many holy mountains, waterfalls, shorelines, forests, deserts and canyons were renamed racial slurs and demonic references. People who participated in ceremonies – even those for mourning and burials — at those places or on reservations were demonized, arrested, starved, imprisoned or killed.

President Theodore to Roosevelt shaking hands with a tribal citizen in 1907. This may have been at an event called Frontier Day. (Library of Congress)

Propagandists told and retold their lies and newspapers sold and resold them until the general public thought the false narratives were true facts.President Theodore Roosevelt, like Jackson, was a propaganda machine for dealings with the Indians, whose population was down from many millions to the near extinction level of 250,000 and was called the Vanishing American.

In his First Annual Message in 1901, Roosevelt opined: “In my judgment…we should definitely make up our minds to recognize the Indian as an individual and not as a member of a tribe. The General Allotment Actis a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass….We should now break up the tribal funds, doing for them what allotment does for the tribal lands….In the schools the education should be elementary and largely industrial. The need of higher education among the Indians is very, very limited.”

Three years later in 1904, Roosevelt allowed his Interior Secretary to reissue the Civilization Regulations. In 1906, he approved the Burke Act, authorizing federal assessments of Native persons as “competent and capable” before they could have fee simple patents to their own allotted land or become U.S. citizens. One month later, he signed the Antiquities Act, authorizing the President to declare as national monuments landmarks, places and objects of historic or scientific interest on federal land or under federal jurisdiction. This and other public domain laws took many more millions of acres of Native homelands and treaty territory, as well as sacred places that removals and federal forces prohibited and prevented Native Peoples from using and then declared them to be public lands because of they were not being used.

Lest any reader thinks that all this is in the distant past, please know that our current problems flow directly from this sorry history. And, in case anyone thinks that only U.S. leaders from a century ago think or talk like Andrew Jackson or Theodore Roosevelt, let’s move a little closer to now.

Many U.S. Presidents have said terminally dumb stuff that showed their ignorance of Native Peoples, and that would be okay if it didn’t translate directly into negative policies. President Ronald Reagan’s administrations in the 1980s tried to turn over Indian education to the states, give Indian trust monies to private banks to manage and to cut the federal Indian budget by one-third in each of the first six years (but, Congress pushed back and the schemes failed). While in the Soviet Union at Moscow State University in 1988, a student asked Reagan a question: “I’ve heard that a group of American Indians have come here because they couldn’t meet you in the United States….” After stumbling about whether they “had asked to see me,” he offered a polite “I’d be very happy to see them.”

Alas, the President went on: “Let me tell you just a little something about the American Indian in our land. We have provided millions of acres of land for what are called preservations—or reservations, I should say. They, from the beginning, announced that they wanted to maintain their way of life, as they had always lived there in the desert and the plains and so forth. And we set up these reservations so they could, and have a Bureau of Indian Affairs to help take care of them. At the same time, we provide education for them—schools on the reservations.

“And they’re free also to leave the reservations and be American citizens among the rest of us, and many do. Some still prefer, however, that way—that early way of life. And we’ve done everything we can to meet their demands as to how they want to live. Maybe we made a mistake. Maybe we should not have humored them in that wanting to stay in that kind of primitive lifestyle. Maybe we should have said, no, come join us; be citizens along with the rest of us.

“As I say, many have; many have been very successful. And I’m very pleased to meet with them, talk with them at any time and see what their grievances are or what they feel they might be. And you’d be surprised: Some of them became very wealthy because some of those reservations were overlaying great pools of oil, and you can get very rich pumping oil. And so, I don’t know what their complaint might be.”

It was a great teaching moment, but we couldn’t reach as many people as the President could. Reagan’s remarks furthered the stereotypes of us as “primitive,” oil-rich, ungrateful gripers, preserved in the past in places away from civilization. He also perpetuated the myth that the U.S. gifted us with a huge landmass, saying U.S. policies were a mistake and the U.S. was just humoring us. Whew.

President George W. Bush made news at a 2004 UNITY: Journalists of Color gathering in Washington, DC, when he answered a question posed by Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock: “What do you think tribal sovereignty means in the 21st century and how do we resolve conflicts between tribes and the federal and state governments…?”

“Tribal sovereignty means that. It’s sovereign,” said the President. “You’re a … you’re a … you have been given sovereignty and you’re viewed as a sovereign entity.” His response drew considerable derision from the conferees, but he was not wrong, except with the word “given” – it cannot be said enough that sovereignty is not a gift.

President Bush was right in not repeating the modifier of “tribal” to sovereignty, which immediately makes our Nations’ sovereignty sound different from the sovereignty of United Nations countries — for example, Belize, Montenegro, Principality of Monaco, Republic of Ireland, Republic of Liberia, Republic of Seychelles, Socialist Republic of Vietnam, United Kingdom of Great Britain (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales), United States or Vatican City State. Most Native Nations have larger land bases and populations than the smaller of these, and have greater longevity as nations than most, but the important thing the reader should take from this that sovereignty has no size, is not on a sliding scale – it either is or is not.

“And therefore,” Bush continued, “the relationship between the federal government and tribes is one between sovereign entities. Now, the federal government has got a responsibility on matters like education and security to help. And health care. And it’s a solemn duty. From this perspective, we must continue to uphold that duty….” Those are good and proper things for a president to say about an enormously complex topic, but I have no doubt that the laughter at his stammer still stings.


Attacks on sovereignty today


Today, attacks on laws — such as the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, Indian Child Welfare Act, Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act — are made possible by the fact that most Americans have no understanding of sovereignty or treaties. Indeed, many of the attacks launched against bedrock pillars of federal Indian law stem from false narratives that either erase our nationhood or dehumanize our people to the point that the sovereignty of our Nations cannot be considered.

I had the privilege of researching, curating and editing the Nation to Nation exhibition and book on treaties and sovereignty for the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. Since launching Nation to Nationin 2014, we have been able to share brief histories of treaties and sovereignty to hundreds of thousands of lawyers, parents, teachers, doctors, veterans, taxi-drivers, federal employees, service workers, senators, artists, tourists and, perhaps most importantly, school children. The feedback has shown a hunger to learn and a commitment to keep and honor our promises.

But, Reclaiming Native Truth’s research shows that one exhibit simply is not enough. “On a broad level, most Americans seem to support Native peoples’ right to self-determination and find the constitutional guarantees of sovereign rights convincing. That said, many are confused about what sovereignty really means in the context of Native peoples and ask questions such as ‘Is it like a separate country, or is it like a state government?’”

We and our allies must find more and better ways to answer the questions and to addressthe national narrative that works against our sovereignty and humanity. Until we reclaim the narrative about our distinctiveness, our diversity, our sovereignty, our nationhood, our values and ourselves, we will continue to be caught in an erasure quagmire that was designed to secure our extinction.

We all must all do this work: moms, pops, students, activists, athletes, journalists, poets, educators, leaders, worker bees and public intellectuals. We must all work to reclaim and proclaim our true narrative of sovereignty and our treaties of peace, friendship and honor, forever.


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Suzan Shown Harjo

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee, is a writer, curator and policy advocate, who has helped Native Peoples protect and recover sacred places and over one million acres of lands. Guest Curator and Editor of the award-winning exhibition (2014-2021) and book (2014), Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, she has been awarded a 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor.


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