Treaty Making


2012, Photo Credit:  Borrowed Light Photography, Travis Svihovec, for Friends of Scherr Howe

2012, Photo Credit: Borrowed Light Photography, Travis Svihovec, for Friends of Scherr Howe


Treaty Making
Treaties between Native nations and the United States federal government provide the historical and legal framework of understanding the nature of the relationship between the two sovereign political entities. By definition, a treaty is a legally bound document between two parties that is enforceable in a court of law. After colonial peoples came to the North American continent before the American Revolution, written agreements and treaty documents were enacted between Native nations and international sovereigns such as England and France before the founding of the new republic called the United States of America. As a result, Native nations exercise inherent tribal sovereignty that predates the formation of the United States Constitution. After the United States republic was formed, the new constitution explicitly contained a provision authorizing the making of treaties with Indian tribes. Between 1789 and 1868, nearly four hundred treaties were entered into between the United States federal government and the Native nations. In 1871, the U.S. Congress ended the treaty-making era with a rider provision legislative ability to abrogate any treaty at any time, the treaty-making era remains the central foundation of Federal Indian Law in the United States. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 was the legal document between the Sioux Nation bands and the United States government that made an explicit promise of peace and established the boundaries of the Great Sioux Reservation. However, the subsequent encroachment of nonnative peoples into the Great Sioux Reservation after the 1874 discovery of gold by General George A. Custer in the Black Hills (Paha Sapa) violated the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty. Despite the clear violation of trespass onto native land, the promises provided in the treaties between Native nations and the United States were broken due to federal government unable or unwilling to enforce them. During this era many treaty agreements were not fully honored which s intention of acquiring more native land and trampling upon the rights of Native American people. In the year 1889 which coincides with the division of the Dakota Territory in North and South Dakota, the Great Sioux Reservation was divided into smaller reservations that reflect much of the remaining Sioux land base as it stands today. Today there are nine federally recognized tribes, or Native nations, in South Dakota: Oglala Lakota (Pine Ridge), Sicangu Lakota (Rosebud), Kul Wicasa Oyate (Lower Brule), Crow Creek Sioux, Yankton Sioux, Flandreau Santee, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock.

Suggested Readings
Cohen, Felix S. Handbook of Federal Indian Law. Washington, DC: Department of the Interior, 1982.

Deloria, Jr., Vine and Clifford M. Lytle. The Nations Within: The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.
Pommersheim, Frank. Braid of Feathers: American Indian Law and Contemporary Tribal Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Mural descriptions by Dr. Edward Welch, Humanities Professor – December 2012



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