Treaty Day

 On February 19, 1867, in Washington, DC, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and a group of “chiefs and head-men of the Sisseton-Wahpeton bands of Dakota Indians” signed the final treaty between the United States and the people who came to be named the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe.
Like most treaty-related stories, the story of the Lake Traverse Treaty of 1867 is a story of challenging times, few options, and a painfilled letting-go of a centuries-old way of life and culture. On the Monday when the rest of the US celebrates Presidents’ Day, the people here instead honor their own survival and resilience against incredible odds.

Like every one of the other treaties signed by Indigenous nations and the United States government, the Treaty of 1867 was about ceding, or giving up, the homeland where ancestors had lived and hunted for thousands of years. For the two bands of the Dakota, Sissetonwaƞ and Wahpetowaƞ, the preceding years had been ones of stark survival and stubborn resilience. When the Mdewakantons and other bands of Asanti (Santee) Dakota had engaged in desperate conflict to try to access the food and annuities being denied them as their women and children starved on the reservation in Minnesota, (a conflict known as the “Dakota Uprising of 1862” by whites, and as the brave attempt to claim food that was legally and rightfully theirs so as to survive by Native historians), the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands had aided the white settlers. They rescued white women and children held captive by the Mdewakantons. They fled for their lives, moving west to survive the vengeance of the US government backed troops and citizens. 

The US government had made no provisions for the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands- no food, no annuities, no land. Facing destitution and certain death by starvation and by the deadly winter weather of the northern plains, the leaders of the bands asked the US government to honor their history as “friendlies.” In exchange for ceding their right to their ancestral homelands, by surrendering to the authorities of the United States government, by accepting agriculture as a way of life, and by giving up their rights to previously reserved hunting, fishing, and living land areas, the two bands received two smaller tracts of land to be set aside as “permanent reservations.”  Along with the land allotment came Congress’s commitment to provide what “shall be deemed necessary to promote the agricultural improvement and civilization of said bands.”

The treaty’s promise of prohibiting the reserved land from ever being taken by the US government or white settlers did not last long. Those tracts of land, today called the Lake Traverse Reservation and the Spirit Lake Reservation (in North Dakota), would soon be whittled down and sub-divided, with settler-farmers and ranchers claiming homesteads on “unneeded” lands, nearly 2/3 of the promised lands, within the reservation boundaries.
So, Treaty Day offers a memorial for what could have been…what should have been. With no viable choice, the two bands opted for survival. When faced with death by starvation and war, leaders agreed to remain “friendlies.” When faced with broken treaty promises, leaders chose to do what needed to be done to survive. 

Treaty Day, then, is also a celebration of sorts- of resilience in the face of genocide, of courage to step into a future designed for extermination, of fortitude to adapt and adopt to a future defined not by one’s own history, but by one’s oppressor’s.

Treaty Day offers many lessons, lessons common to so many Indigenous peoples, across all continents. It is a lesson from which today’s divided world might well benefit.