- Decolonizing the Master NarrativeTreaties and Other American Myths
If we ever owned the land we own it still, for we never sold it. In the treaty councils the commissioners have claimed that our country had been sold to the Government. Suppose a white man should come to me and say, “Joseph, I like your horses, and I want to buy them.” I say to him, “No, my horses suit me, I will not sell them.” Then he goes to my neighbor and says to him, “Joseph has some good horses. I want to buy them, but he refuses to sell.” My neighbor answers, “Pay me the money, and I will sell you Joseph’s horses.” The white man returns to me and “Joseph, I have bought your horses, and you must let me have them.” If we sold our lands to the Government, this is the way they were bought.—Chief Joseph
The master narrative of U.S. history consists of a national patriotic script that unfailingly distorts historical fact in order to present the white American past in the most favorable light possible, especially concerning their relations with the Indigenous peoples of what is now [End Page 58] called the United States. In the U.S. history textbooks used in post-secondary institutions, American historians relate a fictional account of a great and good nation-state, built on equality and the rule of law, which “expanded” onto former Indigenous lands after the government purchased and paid for said lands. The method used to procure these lands, the student is informed, was through making “treaties.” The term “treaty” implies that these documents were procured as a result of uncoerced negotiations between sovereign nations, identical to the international treaty-making process between the United States and European nations conducted using universal practices and protocols.
However, the methods used by the United States in procuring treaties with Indigenous nations did not abide by international standards and practices. Indeed, the methods employed routinely violated all international norms of conduct between nations. Had they been practiced against white European nations, these methods would have entangled the American state in numerous wars. These treaties were almost without exception procured through corrupt and dishonorable practices sanctioned by the highest levels of the U.S. government. Treaty making between the United States and Indigenous nations was unique and distinct from the methods and practices used in international diplomacy; indeed, it constitutes a completely different system, one plainly designed to conform only to the outer appearance of treaty making. Indeed, the system of treaty making used by the United States with Indigenous nations was clearly a major tool of conquest wherein no behavior was too low, no tactic too dishonorable, as long as the goals of cheating the Indigenous peoples out of their lands and wealth and the infliction of abject poverty and subjugation were achieved.
International practices of treaty making were based on the nation-state territorial system of sovereignty that originated with the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. Over the centuries, Western nations (including the United States) developed extensive protocols and practices to resolve conflicts and to formally exchange agreements through the system of treaty making. For many years, European nations engaged in treaty making with one another, but also with Indigenous peoples in areas of the world they were colonizing. In North America, numerous treaties were made with Indigenous nations prior to the creation of the United States in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, often with at least a pretense of equality between the parties.1
After the defeat of the British in the American Revolution, U.S. leaders implemented a system of invasion and conquest of Indigenous lands to which they pretended a “right” bestowed by a legal system that they themselves created. The United States interpreted the treaty it signed with Britain ending the war as conferring title to all the Indigenous lands from roughly west of the Appalachians to the Mississippi River. [End Page 59] This belief was based on the Doctrine of Discovery, a noxious concept created by Europeans to legitimate (in their eyes) what was, in fact, the immoral and unjust conquest of...