Treaty Series: The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868
I hope you enjoyed the introduction to treaties in my recent blog topic, Treaties: What are they? In that, I promised to take a closer look at some specific treaties and this is the first, the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. There’s a lot of history in this, so it’s longer than my typical blog posts but worth the read.
The Fort Laramie treaty was made at a time when Native Americans were in a position of strength with the United States. I say this because, during the 1860s, there was a great push westward on the part of the US and a great “push back” by the Native Americans living on the lands that were being traversed and settled by non-Native peoples. The US was weary from skirmishes and loss of life as it intently forged its way west and specifically eager to “seal a deal” with the tribes that ensured safe passage of settlers and railroad workers through Nebraska, Montana, and Wyoming.
Now, although I mentioned that the tribes were in a unique position of strength for this particular treaty, let’s not forget that the US still wanted to maintain the upper hand and secure its vested interests along the way. Especially in the 1860s, the US government was comfortable making promises to Native American tribes as it was deemed unlikely any of the promises would ever have to be kept.
Article I of the Fort Laramie Treaty
Even the language contained in the Fort Laramie Treaty was deliberate. The various articles in the treaty make clear the reasons why the US government wanted it: To stop Red Cloud from attacking forts and persons along the Bozeman Trail, and to secure unrestricted westward expansion by taking away the culture and structure of the Native Americans.
For example, Article I states: From this day forward all war between the parties to this agreement shall for ever cease. The government of the United States desires peace, and its honor is hereby pledged to keep it. The Indians desire peace and they now pledge their honor to maintain it. Pretty straight to the point. The US wanted the Indians to quit attacking and preventing their westward ambitions across the lands.
Sadly, all wars between the United States and the Native Americans did not end in 1868. The US continued pushing and when Custer surveyed the Black Hills in 1874 and mentioned gold, well, you can guess what happened next. The US seemed to want peace… but only if it served them. The Native Americans wanted to quit feeling the crunch of whites pressing onto and across their lands and to live the way as they had for centuries before Europeans landed on the easternmost shores of what would become known as the United States.
Article I of the Fort Laramie Treaty goes on to state that if any Indians are harmed by “bad men” among the whites, they will be reimbursed or compensated for such injuries and losses. This Article was used successfully in a landmark case in 2009 after a young Native American woman was violated by an Army recruiter – the first successful use of the “bad men clause” since the treaty was signed 141 years earlier. The case ruling states: …the court finds that defendant is liable under the “bad men” clause of the 1868 Treaty and that, as a result, plaintiff is entitled to damages in the amount of $590,755.06.
This twenty-first century ruling was a victory against injustice and also a precedent for future lawsuits against the US when Native Americans are harmed by “bad men among the whites.” The precedent is important because it begins to pave the way to call upon the US to keep the other promises made to the Native Americans under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.
Articles XI and XVI of the Fort Laramie Treaty
Article XI reserves for Native Americans the right to hunt on any lands north of North Platte, and on the Republican Fork of the Smoky Hill river, so long as the buffalo may range thereon in such numbers as to justify the chase. This is a vast area set aside for them to hunt buffalo as the Smoky Hill River is located in Kansas. Similarly, promises under Article XVI assured the tribes eternal ownership of the vast lands located in present day South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska. These lands were collectively referred to as the Great Sioux Reservation and legally promised to the Sioux forever.
Yet once again, there is the issue of specific language: So long as the buffalo may range thereon in such numbers as to justify the chase. Hmmm. Who decides what numbers constitutes a justification for the Native Americans to continue to hunt buffalo? Well, as history has told us, it never mattered because the people of the US set out to exterminate the buffalo from the earth in the 1870s and 1880s. By 1885, the US government estimated that only 200 buffalo remained in the wild.
Learn More About the Fort Laramie Treaty
Sure, there was that one case in 1980, UNITED STATES v. SIOUX NATION OF INDIANS, which awarded the collective Sioux tribes approximately $100 million dollars for the Black Hills. But, what does that do? On the one hand, it sets a legal precedent for the need to honor treaties. On the other hand, it gives a monetary alternative to honoring legal promises. But, as the Sioux have always said: “The Black Hills are not for sale.” $100 million? For the attempted destruction of many unique and beautiful cultures? For the racism against Native Americans through time since 1868? For the billions and billions of dollars made through gold, timber, and tourism? And that’s just in the Black Hills alone! It does not include the money made from oil, tourism, wind and water energy, timber, consumerism, and the construction of infrastructure and cities in every other place contained within what was once the Great Sioux Reservation. Hmmm.
I will stop here. My point is this: What good is a promise if you do not keep it? And, what good is a treaty, which is a legally binding document, if you do not honor it? As history has written, for all those who are dishonored in a treaty, the effects can be devastating. I encourage you to read the complete Fort Laramie Treaty for yourself. And to look at the promises of land, education, money, and hunting rights that were made to the Native Americans. And then realize how dismally the United States has failed to honor the 1868 agreement.