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  • The Power of Promises: Rethinking Indian Treaties in the Pacific Northwest
  • Steven M. Fountain
The Power of Promises: Rethinking Indian Treaties in the Pacific Northwest. Edited by Alexandra Harmon. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008. 384 pp. $65.00 (cloth); $28.95 (paper).

Between late 1854 and early 1856, Governor Isaac Stevens implemented ten treaties in what was then Washington Territory. This flurry of activity followed on the heels of Governor James Douglas's fourteen treaties in neighboring British Columbia between 1850 and 1854. In this brief interval, natives and newcomers brought varying levels of enthusiasm and confidence to a set of new and binding understandings. The treaty process spurred a reorganization of peoples into newly defined groupings, with little consideration of the complex relationships that had long shaped indigenous economics and politics. In at least a handful of cases, Stevens negotiated with individuals already party to agreements with Douglas's government across the narrow "Salish Sea" of the Juan de Fuca Strait. In defiance of Euroamerican expectations of what international boundaries and tribal treaties meant, indigenous kin and trade relationships continued to move across lines imposed on maps.

Many indigenous peoples have long, difficult experience with national governments, especially in the legal arena. In North America, federal recognition, hunting and fishing rights, land claims, and the potential for compensation and reconciliation all hinge upon the wording and interpretation of treaties, many of which date from the nineteenth century. The Power of Promises presents the Pacific Northwest as a microcosm bringing the multiple complications of indigenous and international treaties into sharp focus. As the published result of a 2004 conference, "Pacific Northwest Indian Treaties in National and International Historical Perspective," it avoids predictable or obvious comparisons. Instead, this collection of essays offers several surprises that make this an important touchstone for consideration of indigenous legal relationships around the Pacific Rim and beyond. [End Page 193]

Securing legal title and recognizing treaty signers as nations brought unforeseen consequences. For example, over time, these different treaty-defined tribes became competitors with one another for what became exclusive access to particular resources. Under Western legal processes, formerly shared territory had no standing and family-managed commons became tribal properties. Familial ties to fisheries dissolved into this tribal ownership, transforming a traditionally managed resource into a commons directed by peoples with far less experience or attachment. The competition continues into the present as tribes wage expensive campaigns to quash expansion of "Indian gaming" as a threat to their current revenue streams. In the post-treaty world, the legal arena has not only been one of federal and state governments versus tribes, but also of tribe versus tribe. For many of the peoples with treaties, the documents and their legal standing have become the touchstone for tribal identity.

Though British Columbia has officially embarked on a "New Relationship" for reconciliation and recognition of First Nations claims against the Crown since 2005, that process currently seems stalled in a rejection of proposed legislation to blanket all First Nations with a single set of arrangements. The state of Washington, like its neighbor to the north, contains many peoples with and without treaties. Older ongoing issues in the region include travel and fishing across the international boundary as indigenous and nonindigenous fishermen alike face reduced catches of the region's iconic salmon.

It is particularly timely, then, that scholars have reexamined British Columbia and Washington treaties along with their ongoing meanings and interpretations. Even as courtrooms consider increasing numbers of precedent-setting cases, it is clear that not all parties have understood treaties in the same way. Indeed, even from the era of initial colonial contact, misunderstandings intentional and otherwise have made treaties rather slippery documents.

The changing identities of people with and without treaties is a theme visited often here, and though many similarities appear in the treaty processes of British North America and the United States, the important differences stand out against this background. Perhaps most paramount is the American practice of assuming native sovereignty in the absence of explicit revocation of such rights. The Canadian courts have (in a few cases famously) included no such provision. Canadian judges, as Alexandra Harmon notes in...