The US Constitution, Treaties and Northwest Tribes


If you are a public school student in Washington State, you likely live less than 30 minutes from an Indian tribe and less than 60 minutes from the nearest Indian reservation.  Many public school districts even reside within the boundaries of Indian reservations. 

The concept of treaties predates any revolution fought on this continent.  Treaties have been formal agreements made between nations as far back as Ancient Egypt.  So, the treaty process was not something contrived by the fledgling United States, it was—and continues to be—a time honored governmental practice that is “the law of the land.” (Article VI, Clause 2)

The US Constitution mentions Indian tribes, treaties, and trade specifically. The Supremacy and Commerce clauses of the US Constitution and the provisions of the London or Jay Treaty that came just a few years after the Constitution was ratified, set the stage for Indian-US relations today.

For Indian nations, the goal has been and will always be the protection of tribal Homelands.  When tribes saw that non-Indian settlement of their land was inevitable, they sought protection under treaties.  With the government-to-government relationship established from the beginning of European settlement of North America, treaties were the natural—and widely accepted—form of negotiation and arbitration for land.  The goals, however, were polar opposites.  Remember: preservation of Homelands was of utmost importance to the tribes entering into treaties that ceded most of their precious homelands.  Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, shared the sentiment of the times: he  “…sought to keep them [Indian nations] at peace through treaties and through a project of ‘civilization’ that would try to make Indian culture resemble that of the Anglo-Americans.  Those treaties, like the promises made in the earlier Northwest Ordinance, ratified shortly before Congress adopted the US Constitution, were not kept.



On Indian Treaties

Great nations, like great men, keep their word.  --Justice Hugo Black