Treaties Between the U.S. Government and Native American Nations Matter

Treaties Between the U.S. Government and Native American Nations Matter

S.E. Ruckman

Almost from the first meeting among Europeans, Ojibwe (aka Chippewa) and Sioux, the relationship took a downward slide in Minnesota. From the time of the Treaty of du Chien in 1825, the tone was set for decades of misunderstanding, impatience and expectation between all involved.

Now a new traveling exhibit, “Why Treaties Matter: Self Government in the Dakota and Ojibwe Nations,” that has already begun a multi-week run in Minnesota takes an unwavering look back but stays out of the blame game, said National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) historian Mark Hirsch.

“There is no sense of recrimination,” Hirsch told Indian Country Today Media Network. “No effort to say, ‘Look at what you white people did to us.’”

The joint effort between the Minnesota Humanities Center, NMAI and the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council focuses on trying times in both Native American and non-Native lives when treaties were being drafted and executed with some regularity between the U.S. government and the Indian nations. In Minnesota, some 24 million acres were ceded by the Dakota tribes by treaty.

Details of the assimilative time in Minnesota are covered in an unblinking manner. It covers the early years of Anglo-Minnesota Indian interaction that included signed treaties between the nations. Then the script moves on to look at the treaty years, complete with photos of treaty provision days.

Those were the years when handouts, land allotments and boarding school journeys were all regular occurrences. But laced throughout the pictures—courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute and the Minnesota Historical Society—Native faces emerge, like the one of an elder with her wild rice basket, circa 1940.

The exhibit shows that even in those placid-seeming eras, times change. Grand government promises of payments for land cessations flowered but little money ever arrived. Because lands were given up, places Dakotas and Ojibwe used to hunt and fish were off limits. The results were stark years filled with hunger, hurt and hubris, according to the exhibit script.

Then came the Dakota Conflict of 1862. Fueled by broken promises, frustrations and hungry loved ones, Indian leaders went to war killing hundreds of settlers. A popular post card of the time shows Indians burning and destroying the prairie amongst helpless citizenry. Another shows the payment of $500 in 1864 by the State of Minnesota to a farmer who shot and killed war chief Little Crow, who had a bounty on his head.

Justice was steadily uneven. One of the results of the alleged uprising is the largest public hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota . President Abraham Lincoln commuted most of the original 303 sentenced to hang.

But history is kind of mum in record on why Lincoln commuted the sentences. Historians guess that the appearance of Indians tried in court by the same Army that fought with them might lend to inequality.

“It was a form of justice to commute those sentences,” Hirsch said.

Exhibit officials are hoping that other tribes will want to view the traveling exhibition so they can create their own version of it. The Minnesota exhibit is a smaller scale of a national one being planned by the NMAI for 2014, museum officials said.

Kevin Leecy, chairman of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, said the exhibit was the brainchild of tribal leaders and NMAI executive director Kevin Gover. He said Gover sat down with them and asked what was relevant in Indian country. The main answer was treaties, Leecy recalls.

Amongst the photos and brief historical reviews of “Why Treaties Matter,” NMAI curator Hirsch, said that the main premise was to keep alive the notion that treaties are not figments of the past.

“Treaties are not relics,” Hirsch said. “They are not dusty parchment papers sitting in the National Archives. Treaties equal power and self-determination [of tribes].”

Matthew Brandt, vice president of the Minnesota Humanities Center, said it was integral that the concept of sovereignty came out loud and clear. He explained that the treaties were marked comparisons of how land or property was viewed by both sides [Native and non-Native]. Brandt said this vibe is a strong theme in the exhibit.

“In this exhibit, the voice of the 11 nations is at the heart of this discussion about treaties,” he said.

Indians had attachments to the lands based on oral history, memory and territory while the Anglo view saw land as more of a possession, Brandt said. This marked viewpoint between the two sides regarding Minnesota lands set the stage for innumerable misunderstandings and run-ins.

The exhibit has a historical tone but also carries the onlooker into Minnesota tribes’ every day life. The flashback to a brutal past is paired with the current regulation of the tribes’ funds, gaming, hunting and fishing, which are all examined so the viewer can see how the Minnesota tribes evolved.

The show features a 14-minute video and is aiming for the development of an iPhone app before the exhibit concludes its travels. Once the word gets out, Leecy wants an audience of all races and ages to at least be curious about Indian treaties. It’s a good time to make history accessible, he said.

“It is our hope that they leave [this exhibit] with a better understanding of treaties,” Leecy said. “Things like this are only being covered briefly in school.”

Why Treaties Matter: Self-Government in the Dakota and Ojibwe Nations

2011-2012 Minnesota Travel Itinerary


September 3 – 29: Leech Lake Tribal College, Cass Lake

October 3 – 31: Becker County Historical Society, Detroit Lakes

October 23 – November 23: Riverland Community College, Austin

November 3 – 17: Bemidji State University American Indian Resource Center, Bemidji

November 17 – 30: Beltrami County Government Center, Bemidji

December 3 – 31: Red Lake Nation, Red Lake


January 2 – 31: Nicollet County Historical Society, St. Peter

February 8 – March 7: Carver County Historical Society, Waconia

March 1 – 31: Native American Community Development Institute, Minneapolis

March 23 – April 22: School Dist. 196 Native American Parent Advisory Committee, Rosemount

May 1 – 30: Historic Fort Snelling, St. Paul

May 28 – June 25: Fond du Lac Cultural Center and Museum, Cloquet

June 8 – July 7: Goodhue County Historical Society, Red Wing

July 1 – 31: Minnesota Valley History Center & Dakota Wicohan, Morton

July 16 – August 15: Mayo Clinic, Rochester

August 23 – September 22: Ramsey County Historical Society, St. Paul

October 1 – 31: Winona County Historical Society, Winona

November 8 – December 15: Carlton County Historical Society, Cloquet

Additional Host Sites and Dates TBA

Bois Forte Heritage and Cultural Museum, Tower

Minnesota State Capitol, St. Paul

Prairie Island Indian Community, Welch

Upper Sioux Community, Granite Falls

For more information and itinerary updates visit

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