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Treaty Councils (Indian Treaty-Making)


TREATY COUNCILS (INDIAN TREATY-MAKING). Prior to the American Revolution, formal relations between European colonial societies and the numerous Native Americans in North America were governed by various means, including enslavement, war, and carefully regulated trade. The United States entered its first treaty with a Native American nation, the Delawares, in 1778, during the Revolutionary War. Several wartime agreements were reached with other groups, but the first formal treaties negotiated under the U.S. Constitution were approved in 1789. In the years after the Revolution, U.S. treaties with the Native American nations on the Atlantic seaboard acknowledged Native American sovereignty, determined the boundaries between the Native American nations and the United States, restricted American settlers from occupying or seizing Indians' land, prohibited Native Americans from forging alliances with any nation other than the United States, and governed trade relations.

Treatymaking between the United States and Native American nations changed significantly in May 1830, when Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which established the policy that the United States should secure the exchange of Native Americans' land in the East for land west of the Mississippi River. This law triggered a series of "removal treaties" that extinguished the landholdings of many eastern tribes and established reservations for them in the West. Removal treaties were signed with Native American nations in the Southeast, such as the Cherokee, and also with nations in the Ohio Valley. When Native Americans resisted removal, the federal government relied on military force to obtain their compliance. Most removals involved military pressure. Some, such as the relocation of the Seminoles, required repeated invasion and warfare.

Following the removal era, Congress initiated a number of treaties that reduced the size of tribal landholding in and restricted Native Americans to reservations. These agreements involved relatively small tribes in the Midwest, California, the Northwest, and the Great Lakes region as well as large hunting societies on the Plains and in the Southwest.

The next major shift in treatymaking occurred on 3 March 1871, when Congress determined that the federal government would no longer enter into formal treaties with Native American nations. Despite the end of formal treatymaking, Congress continued to approve agreements negotiated with tribes. In the late nineteenth century most of these agreements were related to the implementation of the 1887 General Allotment Act, a statute that divided reservations into parcels of land that were allocated to individual Native Americans as private property. The act also mandated the sale of the remaining "surplus" land to the federal government.

In 1934 Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act, which prohibited future land allotment, and restored to the Native American nations limited independent authority over their internal affairs. Since then, Native Americans and Congress have relied on federal and state laws to address contemporary issues such as water rights and land use. The United Nations oversaw international agreements that affected indigenous peoples including Native Americans.


Deloria, Vine, Jr., and David E. Wilkins. Tribes, Treaties, and Constitutional Tribulations. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999.

Prucha, Francis Paul. Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

. American Indian Treaties: The History of a Political Anomaly. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Barbara Krauthamer

See also Indian Removal ; Indian Reorganization Act ; Indian Reservations ; Indian Treaties ; Indian Treaties, Colonial .

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