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What was negotiated in Britain's colonial era treaties with Indigenous peoples?
In the period after 1713 and continuing to the present day Great Britain, Canada and the United States signed a series of treaties with different Indigenous nations across North America.
Big question: What was negotiated in the Indigenous Treaties of the 18th and early 19th centuries?
This lesson examines three treaties between Indigenous peoples and the British state, plus a proclamation regarding treaties issued by the British state. It's important for us to see both the variety and the basic consistency across this period and these different colonies - that is, that in different times and places the treaties addressed different issues, and yet at the same time adhered to similar principles. Because their terms are different, and because these treaties still have legal standing today, how they affect, say Nova Scotia, is quite different from how they affect Ontario, or Saskatchewan, and so on. Indeed, some places - notably all of Quebec and most of British Columbia - have no treaties explicitly covering their territories.
Interpreting all these treaties, as two prominent researchers have observed, is "fraught with ambiguity". Some treaties are long and complex, while others are surprisingly simple. Some address diplomatic relationships, while others address land and resources. Some mention land surrender for a fixed sum, while others seem to imply continued Indigenous rights; others, like the Robinson treaty, suggest not fixed terms but an evolving relationship. Thus, we have different issues governing different places, and little or nothing specifically governing other places.This is where the general principles become important. With few proper treaties signed in British Columbia, for example, how can we apply the general principles of the treaty-making process to this situation? In Quebec, it is much the same. In Nova Scotia, as you'll see in one of your examples, promises of "Peace and Friendship" were made, but there is no discussion of surrender, or of ceding land. What does that mean?
What's clear in most of these negotiations is the prominent place Indigenous diplomatics protocols played. The illustration here of the Shawnee negotiations with the British in 1765 and the descriptions of the proceedings in your primary document give you some sense of that. See if you can identify the specifically Indigenous activities and think abut how these change over time. One area we see repeated references to is the Covenant Chain, a set of agreements initially between the Hudson River Mohawk and the British, the Covenant Chain is a symbolic representation of an alliance - a chain that binds the two people together. Begun in the mid-17th century, it came to define British-Haudenosaunnee [Six Nations] relations well into the 19th century. Like most treaties, it was subject to renegotiation - when the chain rusted - and it later came to be referred to as a silver chain, i.e. one that would not rust. As one might imagine, the covenant chain made few particular agreements clear, but it held great power in signifying basic principles of mutual aid and support. In any one moment that might not require either side to a particular course of action, but it made clear general guidelines that ought never be violated.
The history of treaties is a messy and complex one. But it still has a single feature that gives the entire story a basic coherence: they remain documents with formal state-to-state legal standing. We, as a society, have a legal and a moral obligation to deal with our relationship with Indigenous peoples. It behoves us to use the treaties (and if there are none, then the principles we see in the existing treaties) to bring Indigenous peoples into a full and fair partnership on the benefits (and costs) of living in an advanced democratic society. And that's what we will explore in the next few weeks.
The three treaties we examine this week occurred between 1694 and 1818. The one is from 1694 in what is now New York state. It's from the period before the Seven Years War, and thus relates in some ways not only to British-Haudenosaunee relations, but also to the British-French struggle for control in North America. The second is from 1752, on the eve of the Seven Years War, and reflects British efforts to discourage French allies (in the case the Mi'kmaq of modern Nova Scotia) from fighting. And the third is a treaty from Rice Lake, Upper Canada (what is today called Ontario) and reflects the political situation not only after the Seven Years War, but also after the American Revolution. The other document is the Royal Proclamation of 1763. As you'll see the document covers several topics, all related to Britain's victory over France in the Seven Years War. You should read the entire document, but our primary attention should be to the clauses related to land and Indigenous sovereignty in North America. Britain sought to clarify what it saw as the new arrangement of imperial power in North America. Most of the proclamation dealt with borders and forms of government. A substantial section described relations with Indigenous peoples and more particularly outlined the Crown's view of Indigenous territory and sovereignty. We'll discuss more in class, but a key feature of that was drawing a line down through the Appalachian Mountains and proclaiming all land west of that line to be "reserved for the Indians". In outlining rules premised on Indigenous sovereignty over this territory, the Crown also established guidelines for all future relationships with Indigenous peoples. The end of the Seven Years War not only saw the defeat of the French Empire and their removal from North America, but also a corresponding weakening of the position of the many Indigenous peoples across North America (from the Mi'kmaq in the northeast to the Mingo in the southeast). The Royal Proclamation (1763) and the subsequent Treaty of Niagara (1764) were attempts on the part of Great Britain to establish rules for future government of what Britain now saw as its domain. In particular, in drawing that line, and declaring it to be "Indian country", Britain was acknowledging Indigenous sovereignty.
The Royal Proclamation is about more than Indigenous policies. Do you see a general idea guiding British thinking? Why do the British appear to be protecting "Indian" land? Is it significant that that British acknowledge Indigenous title to land? In many ways, the Royal Proclamation and the Treaty of Niagara reflected the new power arrangements in North America with the defeat of France, but in some ways it reflects a long-standing continuity. Discuss.
The Royal Proclamation implies Indigenous title to the land, and thus treats their surrender of land as a free choice (if the Indians "should be inclined to sell") and promises to set a process for future relations. Did subsequent negotiations appear to follow the spirit of the Royal Proclamation? The Rice Lake treaty negotiations offer one of the few transcripts available of the actual negotiation process. Do the Rice Lake Anishinaabe appear "inclined to sell"? Why? Is this sale "just and reasonable"?
The two maps above illustrate the peace at the end of the Seven Years War and one highlights the impact of the Royal Proclamation: In October 1763, following the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the British government confirmed the new boundaries of North America in a proclamation - what we now call "the Royal Proclamation of 1763". New boundaries meant new maps and several cartographers set out to show Britons the outlines of their newly won territories. But the results were interestingly different. Compare the lower map with Thomas Kitchin's "A New Map of the British Dominions in North America" (above). Both maps were produced in London within weeks of each other. Yet they show quite different versions of the new boundaries. These are not simply mistakes. They reflect very different understandings of the meaning of the Proclamation. The differences continue to have very real consequences in our world today.
Three hints: (1) note that these treaties do different things - they occurred at different time, in different place, under different contexts.
(2) Be on the lookout for clues in the formal procedures. Note the use of gifts, particularly wampum and furs. Why were gifts being exchanged? Look at the picture of the negotiation above. That, combined with the formal and ritualised activities described here should give us hints as to how these agreements were being made. Note too the references to the "chain" (Hill helps here)
(3) Make use of what you already know. Notice that the treaty with the Mi'kmaq is just before the Seven Years War; notice that the Royal Proclamation is just after. Preparing for war, and dealing with its outcomes point to radically different contexts. What's changed? Do they share principles? Do the later documents reflect the changed circumstances?
An Account of the Treaty Between His Excellency Benjamin Fletcher, Captain General and Governor in Chief of the Province of New York and the Indians of the Five Nations, August 1694 (New York, William Bradford, 1694).
Printed Proclamation of the 1752 Treaty between the Governor of Nova Scotia and some "Mickmack Indians" [Mi'kmaq].The Royal Proclamation (1763)
Documents on the Rice Lake Treaty negotiations (Upper Canada, 1818), pp.89-96.
Susan Hill, The Clay We Are Made Of: Haudenosaunee Land Tenure on the Grand River (Winnipeg, University of Manitoba Press), 65-71 and 82-89. [the download here is the entire chapter - read just the two sections]