The North American Experience

By The International Labour Organization
A brief history: United States

The nationals (or “Federal”) governments of the United States made its first treaties with indigenous nations in 1776-1778 during its was for independence from the British Empire. Two indigenous nations, the Mi”kmaq and the Delaware (Leni”lenape), agreed to recognize the United States as an independent state and help defend it. After making peace with the British Empire in 1783, the US made treaties with large indigenous nations on its western frontier, which still possessed the military power to destroy all European settlements. In these earliest treaties, the US sought only peaceful co-existence and trade. There was a second war between the US and the British Empire in 1812-1814, and it was followed by another series of US treaties with the indigenous nations of the west and along the border with Canada.

By 1820’s, however, the non-indigenous population was growing rapidly, and the Federal government began making treaties to purchase land for new settlements. These treaties agreed on the boundaries of land sold, the procedure for demarcating the remaining indigenous lands, the relocation of indigenous communities, compensation – usually in the form of annual installments of money and tools – and the duty of the US to protect indigenous people from encroaching settlements and outbreak of violence. Indigenous people were often forced to accept inadequate compensation, and insufficient time to move their homes. It is understandable, then, why most of the indigenous peoples who were relocated this way joined the rebel armies during the unsuccessful civil war against the US Federal government, in 1861-1865.

With the end of the Civil War, the military power of the Federal government was greater than ever before. At the same time, the bitter was had destroyed farms and cities in the south-eastern region of the country, and left hundred of thousands of soldiers without employment or homes. Between 1865 to 1868, the Federal government made treaties with the indigenous peoples of the western prairies, to buy more land for settlements and mining. The treaties made during these four years involved nearly one-third of the geographic area of the US (note 1), and doubled the total amount of land owned by non-indigenous settlers. Indigenous peoples did not agree to this freely. Several wars were fought before indigenous peoples agreed to sell any of their lands in the prairies. The military strength of these indigenous peoples is suggested by the fact that the US agreed that they could keep approximately one-fifth of their ancestral lands as “Indian Reservations” for their “exclusive use and occupation”.

In 1871, Congress enacted a law forbidding the making of any more treaties with indigenous peoples. Treaties were too expensive, it was argued, and it was no longer necessary to recognize indigenous peoples as independent nations. Federal officials continued to negotiate with indigenous peoples for more land, however, avoiding the law by calling these land transactions “agreements” rather than “treaties”. There is little evidence that these “agreements” were freely made by the indigenous people since, by the 1880’s they were living on Indian Reservations, where their activities were largely controlled by Federal officials or missionaries. After 1910, few “agreements” were negotiated because indigenous peoples had already lost 90% of their lands.

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