Native History: The Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867

October marks a significant milestone in Native history – the anniversary of the US-Indian Conference of 1867 that culminated with the Medicine Lodge Peace Treaty.

The “Medicine Lodge Treaty” commonly refers to the three treaties signed between the U.S. government and the Great Plains tribes that had settled in Medicine Lodge on the Kansas prairie, a sacred area to those tribes. The conference took place 70 miles south of Ft. Larned at the cusp of the Medicine Lodge River and Elm Creek, after a failed peace treaty earlier that spring. It is estimated that 5000-15,000 tribal members were in attendance.

The Medicine Lodge Treaty was intended to establish rules to end conflicts and bring peace to the region, albeit by relocating the tribes to reservations in Indian Territory (what is now Oklahoma) and away from European settlers. For half a century before, Kansas, Nebraska and lands westward had been deemed unsuitable for settlers, so the U.S. had tried relocating all American Indians to one giant Great Plains reservation in an area known as the Great American Desert. However, Native Americans naturally began nomadically roaming the Plains beyond this unnatural boundary, and the U.S. found that threatening to further settlement, resulting in the Medicine Lodge peace talks.

The three separate treaties signed with five tribes at Medicine Lodge included one on Oct. 21, 1867 between the U.S. and the Comanche, Kiowa, and Kiowa-Apache, and two a week later on Oct. 28, 1867 with the Cheyenne and the Arapahoe. The tribes ceded familiar lands and hunting grounds, in exchange for allotted reservation lands. They also unknowingly gave up their freedom to leave the reservation or practice their religion and traditions yet doing so was considered a breach of treaty.

Like so many times before and after, this only led to broken treaties with further reductions of land and freedoms. In the 1903 legal battle of Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (187 U.S. 553), Kiowan Chief Lone Wolf claimed defraudation of land due to misrepresentations by the interpreter and lack of required votes. Congress found the treaty was void because it was not ratified by the required three quarters of the male tribal members. Then President William McKinley stepped in and allowed whites entry and settlement on the disputed lands, and the Supreme Court closed any further appeals or arguments on the case.

If I can share one key point to remember, it is the lasting impact of the Medicine Lodge Treaty and all treaties. Apparently, there came a point when the U.S. government decided it was okay to dehumanize us and evict us from our homes through our lack of understanding, and when we came to understand, loopholes or acts of Congress were put forth and treaties were broken. Much of this is the root of mistrust and the challenges affecting Indigenous peoples today.

October also reminds us of several other unfortunate events in Native history:

  • On Oct. 5, 1813, Tecumseh, a Shawnee Chief widely regarded as a fighter for the rights of tribes, fell in battle, a casualty of the War of 1812.
  • On Oct. 5, 1877, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Tribe surrendered to the U.S. at Bear’s Paw near the Canadian border declaring, “from where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
  • On Oct. 31, 1941, Mount Rushmore was completed with the figureheads of four presidents. The monument remains controversial to this day and is often seen as a mockery of the Black Hills sacred to the Lakota.
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