Treaties with a Voice

LBHC symposium provides historical context for treaties in modern times
Thursday, September 20, 2018

Photo by Carl Danelski

Dr. Alden Big Man – who has taught history, and Crow and Native American studies at Little Big Horn College – shakes hands with John Parish Peede, chairman for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Both Peede and Big Man spoke during the “Treaties that Live” symposium for the 150th anniversary of the Fort Laramie and Fort Hawley treaties.

Photo by Carl Danelski

Master of Ceremonies Dale Old Horn presents a lecture titled, “Crow Oral Traditions of Mid-19th Century Treaty Negotiations.” Old Horn outlined the boundaries of what the Crow Tribe understood as their rightful territory.

The pact symposium held Friday and Saturday at Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, entitled “Treaties that Live,” was organized to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the signing of two treaties – one at Fort Laramie, Wyoming in May of 1868 and one at Fort Hawley, Montana in July of 1868. In Fort Laramie, the document was negotiated with the Mountain Crow and in Fort Hawley the River Crow, though the latter treaty never was ratified by Congress.

The symposium served as a landmark revisiting of these historic documents. As many of the presenters noted, the documents themselves are more than archaic doctrines frozen in time.

The event opened with a ceremonial scout song led by Grant Bulltail, a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and descendant of signers of the Fort Laramie Treaty. Later, former Head of Crow Studies at LBHC Dale Old Horn would open his presentation by prompting several other direct descendants of treaty signers to stand and be recognized.

“I did that exercise to show you these treaties are living treaties,” Old Horn explained. “The stories of how these men approached the U.S. government, and how they presented themselves and what they stood for and lived for, are told in our families from generation to generation.”

Sits in the Middle of the Land, also known as Blackfoot, or Blackfoot Man, was a signer of the Fort Laramie Treaty credited with uniting the River and Mountain Crows for the purpose of negotiating with the newly-arrived federal agents. Many of the presenters were keen to point out how tribal members were accustomed to treaties long before the United States of America arrived, whenever they formed agreements with one another. They were required by the nature of their livelihood to keep peace with one another. What Sits in the Middle of the Land did was negotiate peaceably for the protection of generations to come.

Old Horn doubled as presenter and master of ceremonies for the symposium, and it was his voice and fact-driven approach to the subject that provided a common point throughout the gathering, as he would introduce and transition between speakers.

C. Adrian Heidenreich, professor emeritus of Native American Studies at Montana State University Billings, provided much of the background leading up to the meetings at Fort Hawley and Fort Laramie. His presentation emphasized the intertribal context of the treaties.

“During the 1860s, the Crows were living a way of life that they loved in a country they loved,” he said. “At the same time, they were under stress. Various members of the tribe engaged in almost constant negotiations with each other, with other tribes and with representatives of the U.S. government.”

Heidenreich also highlighted skepticism among the Crows leading up to negotiations. The Crows used various negotiating strategies and cultural protocol to establish personal relationships with the peace commissioners.

“Bear Tooth shook hands with each one of the commissioners,” Heidenreich explained, referring to an oral testimony of the 1868 meeting. “The pipe and tobacco, used to share and honor each other, passed from person to person. Bear Tooth took three puffs, presented it one at a time to each of the peace commissioners. He asked them, ‘Smoke, and remember me today and grant what I ask.’”

Sits in the Middle of the Land reminded the delegates of the failure of the government to fulfill 1851 treaty promises. “What use,” he said, “to make treaties if this is the way the whites observe them? My grandfathers advised the nation of the Crows to be good. How can we be good when you take our lands, promising in return so many things which you never give us?”

Among the many failed promises was the issue of hunting grounds, and nearly every presenter at the symposium tied the treaties to the pending case, Clayvin Herrera v. Wyoming. The case, which is set to appear before the Supreme Court this fall following a writ of certiorari, involves a modern day example of access to traditional hunting grounds being denied to the Crows by the State of Wyoming.

Tim McCleary, anthropologist and LBHC professor, said in his research for this case that he found the argument against allowing Crow access to hunt on these lands was based on the principle of conservation. And yet, he continued, when the State of Wyoming was looking to repopulate elk at the turn of the century, the Crow people brought in 130 elk, and Wyoming brought in only 26.

Another concern was that of land ownership itself. Presenter and LBHC Library Director Tim Bernardis explained that in the 1851 Laramie Treaty, Crow territory measured more than 38 million acres. The 1868 treaty reduced its size to eight million acres. Today, it stands at 2.2 million acres.

“It was to be their, quote, ‘permanent home,’ though they could continue to hunt elsewhere off the reservation if game was found,” he said.

Finally, there was the issue of livelihood. As Old Horn pointed out, the U.S. government designated the Crow Reservation as an agricultural area.

“The Crows were outstanding herdsmen, but yet, the U.S. government wanted to change their life as outstanding herdsmen and make them become farmers,” he said. “Had they recognized this skill, this knowledge, and brought this knowledge of being herdsmen, such as raising cattle, [the treaty] would have been successful.”

As the assembly pointed out, the Crows were not the only ones disappointed with results following the treaty. In the immediate aftermath, the Montana Post reported, “The fact that treaties are concluded with the Indians may appear on the face a gratifying fact, but in reality it is an errant piece of naivery and humbug.”

In spite of these difficulties, there remained a thread of optimism among the presenters, both for Clayvin Herrera’s case, and for future generations of Crows receiving the benefit of a college education.

“We need to teach the youngest one to the fortysomethings what the roles and responsibility of being Apsáalooke are about,” said presenter and State Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy (D-Crow Agency).

She also used Worcester v. Georgia of 1852 to point out a potential precedent. It was Associate Justice John McClean who concluded, “The language used in the treaties with Indians should never be construed to their prejudice.”

Finally, the symposium gained a visit from John Parish Peede, the chairman for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In his speech, Peede emphasized the role of education, and the importance of an informed citizenry.

“I am here today in part, to testify to you that the history of Native Americans, that the history of Plains Indians,” he said, “is understood by the NEH as crucial to a comprehensive and informed knowledge of American history.”

Regarding the future of American Indians, he said, “I do think that their voice is an essential voice.”