As Long as the Grass Grows and the Rivers Run: Native American Treaties Today
A Conversation with Della Warrior and David S. Ferriero
In the late 1930s, the Department of State transferred hundreds of Native American treaties to the National Archives. The treaties are housed in a specially protected area in the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., and are not available for public viewing—with eight exceptions—and study due to their historic significance and fragility.
In 2020, New Mexico’s Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) and the National Archives launched the Indigenous Digital Archive's (IDA) Treaties Explorer, an online tool that makes 387 of these rarely seen treaties accessible to the public for the first time. The Treaties Explorer was featured in a session at PastForward Online 2021.
Peggy Mainor, executive director of the MICA Group, interviewed David S. Ferriero, the Tenth Archivist of the United States (who retired in April 2022), and Della Warrior, the former executive director of MIAC, who, during their tenures, launched the Treaties Explorer. Warrior, who along with Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller founded the MICA Group—a Native-led organization that partners with Indigenous communities to protect their lands, languages, and cultures—currently serves as its CEO.
Why are treaties important today? What is Treaties Explorer and why is it needed?
Della Warrior: When British colonists first arrived in 1587 to what is now called Roanoke Island, North Carolina, millions of Indigenous people already lived on this continent. The British colonists came for wealth and to establish an outpost against the Spanish, who wanted gold. The Pilgrims, who later landed in Massachusetts in 1620, came for religious freedom.
Regardless of why they came, all of them soon wanted land, and they were willing to take the land by force, “agreement,” or both. The agreements the U.S. government made with the sovereign Indigenous Nations to take possession of Indian lands are called treaties.
Many Americans may think treaties are something signed back in the 1600s or 1700s and forgotten. But treaties are legal commitments the U.S. government made to Indigenous peoples, and they are still in force today. MIAC and the National Archives wanted to make these commitments accessible to the public.
David S. Ferriero: The National Archives and Records Administration is fully committed to its mission of preserving and making accessible the records in its care. The treaties have long been held in our vault—well protected, but not readily accessible to the public.
The Treaties digitization project ensures that this important body of records is shared with the largest possible audience. All of the original treaties are also available in the National Archives Catalog.
Why is it important for people to see and read the original treaties to understand the relationship and history between the United States and Native American Nations?
Warrior: Growing up in Oklahoma as an Otoe-Missouria tribal member, I remember asking my mother why our people were so poor. Treaties explain that in return for taking Indigenous people’s land, the source of their wealth and livelihood, the United States promised to provide us with health care, food, education, and other items necessary to live, including protection from colonists’ attacks. No one I knew had ever seen the treaties that dictate why our people live in Oklahoma, far from our homelands, or the many promises the U.S. government had made to our people.
I grew up hearing people say, “Indians get everything for free.” I didn’t realize that we were so poor because we had given up our wealth, which was in our land, in return for promises that weren’t kept. I heard people say the services Native people receive are because of “government largesse,” but that is not true. The services we receive were promised by treaty.
The first time I read the U.S. government’s promises to my people in the treaties was a near-sacred moment for me. I wondered how much the signers, who signed with an “X” because they could neither read nor write, understood. All Americans should see these treaties.
Ferriero: I grew up in Massachusetts, a state with lots of Indian heritage, and used to walk the edge of a local lake collecting arrowheads. So, from childhood on I had an interest in those who were here first.
Of all the things we have custody of and are responsible for—even the Charters of Freedom—I believe the Indian treaties are the most valuable documents we have in terms of reading the original language and the government promises and realizing what was never delivered. I have had opportunities to join tribal elders and tribal lawyers in the vault as they experience the same things Della describes. Now anyone, anywhere, can easily and freely access these records.
What can Native as well as non-Native people learn from the treaties?
Warrior: I think seeing the treaties can help Native youth feel pride in their people, who fought hard for our lands but were overrun by the sheer numbers of European settlers, who also brought disease. We had no choice but to sign the treaties, or our people would not have survived. Treaties can help them understand that we did not give up their land willingly. We still consider the United States our land. I hope tribal descendants will understand that the services they receive are payments on a debt due to the true heirs of the land.
Treaties also reinforce the fact that because Indian Nations predate the United States, our sovereignty is political, not racial. We were here long before the European colonists and we are still here.
Ferriero: Descendants of the original peoples can now read the words set down by their ancestors. Treaties are still relevant today as tribal leaders and lawyers continue to use them in court, such as in cases over land and water rights.
The treaties and related records at the National Archives are unique. They document both the culture and history of American Indian peoples and the ever-changing nature of their relationship with the U.S. government for nearly 250 years.
It is essential that both Native and non-Native people see and learn about the treaties, which are among the saddest records in our holdings. Each time I accompany tribal elders and lawyers in viewing the original treaties, I am reminded how poorly our government treated these people—so many broken promises, brutal land grabs, and repeated betrayals. The treaties help us accurately understand our past—the high points and the low points.
What can treaties tell us about why place and land are so important to Native people? What can non-Native people do make amends for, as David said, the “broken promises, brutal land grabs, and repeated betrayals”?
Warrior: Treaties are a written record of coercion and the loss of a way of life that Indian people thrived on for centuries. They show our good faith, and, I think, naiveté that the government would keep its promises. As people of place, to give up our lands was, for us, like Jewish people giving up Mt. Sinai. Sadly, the taking of Native American lands is still happening today, as with the U.S. government’s sale of the Apaches’ Holy Land—Oak Flat, Arizona—to a foreign mining company.
Now that the U.S. government has assumed responsibility to steward our lands, the treaties remind us of our joint responsibility to care for the land and respect it. Land is alive as humans are alive. It is a part of us, and we are a part of it. It provides us a home and gives us gifts of life: food, joy, and happiness. It is not just a commodity owned as part of a portfolio. The treaties remind us that we must work together to protect the land for the good of all if we are to survive and thrive here.
Ferriero: As I learned more about our history through these treaties and other Native American records, I started a series of land acknowledgments for the National Archives and Records Administration, noting that we are located on the ancestral homelands of many Native American peoples across the country.
As the nation’s record keeper, we acknowledge our important role in preserving and providing access to the permanent federal records of this country. We recognize and share the Native American history and their immemorial ties to this land.
We commit ourselves to developing deeper partnerships that advocate for the progress, dignity and humanity of the many diverse Native Americans who still live and practice their heritage and traditions on this land today.
I encourage everyone to research and learn about the ancestral Indigenous lands on which you work and live.
What do you see as the future for this project?
Warrior: Native cultures have contributed so much to our nation. Treaties can contribute to new understandings and revised interpretations of the Nation’s history. Every state textbook should include a balanced, true accounting of the Nation’s history, including the Native perspective. It is long past time for the truth to be told, and the Treaty Project can play a lead role in that education.
A greater understanding and appreciation of the unique relationship between the U.S. government and Native Americans will be healing both to Native people and to the nation as a whole.
Ferriero: With such increased access to these records, we are expanding our educational outreach to Native American communities, while raising and increasing awareness of Native American history for everyone. Our education staff have developed our Native American Professional Development Series that includes webinars, online research aids, materials, and hands-on projects relating to interactions between the Federal government and Native peoples from the 19th century until today. Through these webinars, teachers learn to use our “Native Communities” guides and programs.
Peggy Mainor is the Executive Director of the MICA Group, a Native-led organization that partners with Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities to bring new frameworks and resources to Indian Country. MICA brings an unfailing belief in the resilience of Indigenous peoples and their wisdom to know best how to nurture their own communities.
She would like to thank Anna Naruta, MIAC consultant, and Pamela Wright, chief innovation officer of the National Archives, for their brilliant work bringing Treaties Explorer to life, and to wish David Ferriero a very, very happy retirement!
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