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Linking Arms Together: American Indian Treaty Visions of Law and Peace, 1600-1800

Linking Arms Together: American Indian Treaty Visions of Law and Peace, 1600-1800
Author: Robert A. Williams Jr
ISBN 13: 9780415925778
ISBN 10: 415925770
Edition: Revised ed.
Publisher: Routledge
Publication Date: 1999-09-15
Format: Paperback
Pages: 204
List Price: $40.95

This readable yet sophisticated survey of treaty-making between Native and European Americans before 1800, recovers a deeper understanding of how Indians tried to forge a new society with whites on the multicultural frontiers of North America-an understanding that may enlighten our own task of protecting Native American rights and imagining racial justice.

Jill Norgren

As recently as August of l997, the United States Senate debated legislative measures that would void certain of the oldest principles of federally recognized Native American sovereignty. The proposed changes were introduced as riders on a spending bill by Senator Slade Gorton of Washington, who is described as having had a "running dispute with Indians in his home state for 25 years" and who is campaigning to force fundamental changes in United States-Indian relations. While Gorton argues that he "find[s] nothing in any Indian treaty that says they must be continuously supported by the Federal taxpayers," Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has called the Gorton measure "one of the most radical and unjust of a stream of recent Congressional proposals," and contends that it would "overturn almost two centuries of jurisprudence." (Egan 1997:1,20) Even more pointedly, Secretary Babbitt might have indicated that the measures proposed by Senator Gorton violate longstanding international treaties between Native American peoples and the United States, treaties based upon Euro-American and Native American legal ideas. While European and American concepts of diplomacy and treaty-making are well known and documented, Native Americans' political and intellectual contributions to diplomacy have been, at best, ignored, at worst, caricatured. In LINKING ARMS TOGETHER, the talented historian and legal scholar, Robert A. Williams, Jr. addresses this ignorance with a study of the "legal ideas that American Indian peoples sought to apply in their relations with the West during the North American Encounter era." In this short treatise, Williams offers a compelling description of Indian diplomatic visions and methods. It is a rich addition to the literature. The first contribution of LINKING ARMS TOGETHER lies in its articulation of the unequivocal manner in which indigenous tribal peoples in North America approached diplomatic relations as equal partners with clear and firm visions of peace, security, and cooperation. In seventeenth and eighteenth century treaties, councils, and negotiations, American Indians voiced principled understandings that could be used to govern an increasingly multi-cultural continent. "We shall each travel the river together, side by side, but in our own boat. Neither of us will steer the other's vessel."(4) In the Encounter Era, the survival of many of the peoples of the European colonies in North America depended on their ability to reach accommodation with nearby Indian tribes. Europeans entered into trade with Indians, and secured alliances and goodwill, by "adapting themselves to tribal approaches to the problems of achieving law and peace" in a newly diverse world. (5) This is not, of course, the narrative of standard American textbooks or, for that matter, several key United States Supreme Court opinions. Rather, the American drive from sea to sea was sustained by an American mythology of Indian tribalism's cultural inferiority and of America's conquest of Native Americans. The importance of myth as source-rationale of legal rights is familiar to us in Tee Hit-Ton v. United States (348 U.S. 272,288-90 [1955]) ("Every American schoolboy knows that the savage tribes of this continent were deprived of their ancestral ranges by force....") and Oliphant v. Suquamish Tribe (435 U.S. 191,202 [l978]) ("a century ago when most Indian tribes were characterized by a 'want of fixed laws [and] competent tribunals of justice....") Williams opens LINKING ARMS TOGETHER with an excellent chapter, "National Mythologies and American Indians," that describes these mythologies along with the competing Indian visions of themselves as accommodators of, rather than obstacles to, European survival. Always a story of different groups of peoples in the difficult process of society building, Williams' corrective now balances the insistent determinism of Western superiority and "destiny" with the alternative Indian concept of cooperation. The core of LINKING ARMS TOGETHER analyzes Indian treaty visions in several contexts: treaties as sacred texts; treaties as connections; treaties as stories; and treaties as constitutions. In the first of these chapters, Williams asserts the importance to Indian peoples of treaties as sacred texts that provided orientation and strategy in the complex, demanding time of Encounter. Treaties were more than temporal agreements and they were broken "only under peril of divine displeasure." (48) Descriptions of, for example, the Iroquois Condolence Council are given and linked to the diffusion of symbolic patterns and metaphors in Iroquois diplomacy: the Tree of Great Peace could shelter the peoples of the earth. According to Iroquois belief, "when all nations are brought under the shade of the Tree of Peace, [t]he land shall be beautiful, the river shall have no more waves, one may go everywhere without fear."(60) Treaties were also instruments of practical connective and reciprocating relationships between local peoples and communities of others at a distance. Tribal diplomats used a language of connection in the difficult task "of communicating the good news of peace."(71) They sought to convince the Europeans that only through sharing and reciprocity could an individual ensure his or her survival for any significant length of time in the vast and hostile wilderness of the continent. These diplomatic conversations often relied upon the language and honorifics of fictive kinship. In a chapter on treaties-as-stories, Williams contends that "particularly when negotiating with strange and alien-seeming European peoples, Indians had to narrate more precisely what they meant by their vision of treaty partners behaving as relatives toward one another." (83) Indian diplomats also used treaties as stories to educate a treaty partner about the expected norms of behavior of peoples in such a formal relationship. Williams uses the powerful story of the Iroquois captive, Tokhrahenehiaron, told to the French by Kiotseaeton at the l645 Three Rivers Treaty Council as a masterful example of such diplomatic guidance. (89-91). In the last of these illustrative chapters, Williams presents the case for comprehending treaties as constitutions, understanding constitution in the British sense as "encompassing a whole body of values, customary practices, and traditions basic to the polity."(98-99) In the American Indian diplomatic vision, treaties required partners to acknowledge "their shared humanity and to act upon a set of constitutional values reflecting the unity of interests generated by their agreement." (99) Imagining the possibilities of different peoples linking arms through shared humanity and commonly agreed to values was a dominate theme of Encounter era Indian diplomacy. LINKING ARMS TOGETHER is important for showing how these tribal visions of law, providing paradigms for behavior in the relations of indigenous tribal peoples and the Western-settler-societies, have been "long suppressed by the West because they deny the underlying legal legitimacy and moral foundation of the West's continuing colonial hegemony over indigenous tribal peoples."(5) How much easier to teach generations of American schoolchildren the ideas of manifest destiny when the competing Native American vision of linking arms was suppressed. Seeing Indian peoples as savages, children, hapless adults, or --in Senator Gorton's view, beggars at the federal trough-- has depended, in part, on denying the worth and legitimacy of their statesmanship and cooperative vision. Williams' work is a critical reminder that it is not sufficient to say "the United States has failed by laws of its own making." While it is true that the United States has not honored laws, treaties, and court opinions authored by its officials, even this well-meaning appraisal slights the alternative insights enumerated by Williams. Williams offers this study as history and as guide to a decolonized law, a law capable of transcending a mythologized American law that has been instrumental in the assault against Indian culture, existence, and sovereignty. He seeks to rewrite Indians back into Indian law and to demonstrate how Indian legal and diplomatic visions enabled Indian peoples to survive under U.S. law. He acknowledges that this study develops only the broadest themes and he invites other scholars to explore other pathways that illustrate how Indian peoples understood and negotiated the West's "will to empire." From these investigations, Williams hopes a new theoretical framework will emerge for interpreting Indian rights. Reference Egan, Timothy. 1997. "Senate Would Deal Blow to Indian Rights." NEW YORK TIMES (August 27), p.1, 20.