THE BLOG

What Might Have Been; Treaties and Nation-Building

02/03/2015 12:28 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015

"Great nations, like great men, should keep their word."
- Hugo Black, U.S. Supreme Court Justice

Nation to Nation; Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, the recently installed exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian, is one of the most difficult and troubling exhibitions I've ever experienced. It is also the best history exhibition I've seen at the Smithsonian.

Exhibitions about rarely or poorly told pivotal histories are best when conveyed through First Voice, and such is the case with Nation to Nation. American Indian Museum Director Kevin Gover (Pawnee), a seasoned lawyer with treaty experience, led the development of the exhibition, and brought noted writer and curator Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee) to organize it. Beautifully and smartly laid out in four sections and featuring 125 objects from the museum's collection and other lenders, videos and interactive elements, Nation to Nation tells a complex and riveting story about First Contact and optimism, diplomacy and deception, territorial expansion and displacement, institutional racism and cultural repression and survivance, social activism and reaffirmation.

"This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land."
- U.S. Constitution, article 6, clause 2

In theory, and as noted in the handsome exhibition catalogue, "Treaties intertwine nations at the time of their making and throughout their histories." Despite good intentions and even accounting for the possibility of shifting interpretations that might accompany changing political, social and economic realities, one is left struggling with the fact that no Indian treaty has ever been abrogated, but most have been misinterpreted, ignored or practically forgotten. So much for Justice Black's pronouncement.

For the past four years, the Smithsonian Latino Center and National Museum of the American Indian have collaborated on an exhibition project exploring indigenous legacies of the Caribbean. We are planning to produce an exhibition in 2017. Among the toughest exhibition challenges is the twin notion of The New World and Discovery. The Americas were not a new world and were not first discovered by Europeans, and yet it is confounding how this conjoined construct is repeatedly advanced to exert supremacy, and orchestrate land acquisition, national expansion, Indian removal and economic exploitation. Particularly troubling is the Anglo-American colonial theory, Doctrine of Discovery. This doctrine basically asserts that the British had exclusive colonial rights to "discovered" territories in the Americas, and thereby the right to claim Native lands to the exclusion of other European powers. Over time, this doctrine was used in concert with other colonial practices to accomplish mass cessions of Native lands, making an operational mockery of face value diplomacy and fair trade. Leaders of an emerging United States fell into doctrinal line, with tragic consequences for the First Americans.

As I went through Nation to Nation my Chicano eyes and sensibilities compelled me to harken back to the U.S. doctrine of Manifest Destiny, the Mexican American War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Manifest Destiny is the idea that the U.S. had the natural right to rule North America, from coast to coast. Several presidential administrations sought to purchase land from Mexico, to no avail. Skirmishes broke out between Mexican and U.S. troops in 1845 over disputed boundary lines, sparking the Mexican American War. As part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), which brought an end to the war, Mexico ceded almost half of its national territory -- all or portions of the present states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. While article VIII of Guadalupe Hidalgo guarantees the rights of formerly Mexican citizens, the pattern of subsequent land cessions, language and cultural suppression, racially inspired violence, economic exploitation and social injustice is made manifest in the second-class citizenship to which these same and new Mexican migrants, including my parents, were subjected.

Arguably, Native Americans had no greater advocate than the late Senator Daniel Inouye. As a long-standing member and former chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, he once noted, "Too few Americans know that Indian nations ceded millions of acres of lands to the United States, or that...the promises and commitments made by the United States were typically made in perpetuity. History has recorded, however, that our great nation did not keep its word to the Indian nations, and our pre-eminent challenge today...is to assure the integrity of our treaty commitments and to bring an end to the era of broken promises."

As one goes through the last section of Nation to Nation, titled "The Future of Treaties," you understand and appreciate that the struggle for what can be is not over, and, importantly, that the preservation and restoration of treaty rights is the proper and mutually beneficial thing to do for the future of this Nation of Nations.