The importance of treaties and how they're portrayed and utilized is essential in learning not only about the Indigenous Peoples of America but in legal history too. The documents that are obtained for this purpose is the foundation of legal basis between sovereign American Indian Nations and the government of the United States of America.
Agreements in this specific arrangement are regularly used by Native nations in order to exercise and obtain their rights and lands codified withing and established as law by the Constitution in Article 2, Section 2.
Extremely often, the American government has violated the mandates and promises in these documents. In the Supreme Court's case of United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, is a prime following that explains the legitimacy of treaties within the framework of the federal court of law. This decision not made too long ago brings us back to the history of western expansion of the land here and efforts made from Native nations to maintain their homes and personal spaces.
The treaty at the center of this case is the For Laramie Treaty of 1868, representing the strong allyship of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations together at the end of the Red Cloud's war.
The conflict at hand was notable for U.S. army defeats like the Fetterman Fight, resulting in the deaths of 81 soldiers and made great remembrance of a young Oglala warrior, Crazy Horse.
The United States had sued for peace, with the treaty creating the Great Sioux Reservation that included the sacred Black Hills. The layout of the Fort Laramie Treaty had general approval from the Lakota Nation and their allies. With the understanding of Indigenous tribes resisting western expansion with good reason, knowing that also having success with Red Cloud's War is key for learning their history.
The United States cooperated to remove several forts from the Bozeman Trail, and the Great Sioux Reservation was officially recognized in South Dakota. The inclusion of the Black Hills was crucial in the eyes of the Lakota community. Its scared space was one they wanted to preserve and obtain.
In the treaty under Article 7, it states, “No treaty for the reservation herein described which may be held in common shall be of any validity or force as against the said Indians, unless executed and signed by at least three-fourths of all the adult male Indians, occupying or interested in the same.” It gave a protection against a minority-brokered alternative compromise with the U.S. government.
The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, was a process and formation of power and teamwork, legitimizing the land for the Native nations that has been their own since the beginning of their civilization.
By the time 1877 came around however, a new agreement have come into light between the Lakota Nation and the U.S. A military expedition was ordered into Black Hills in 1874 with the discovery of gold, leading to illegal mining and no authorization that the Lakota people had to react with defending themselves. The Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 had created harsh biases against reservations for indigenous folks.
Military campaigns were intentionally made against those who resided on the Black Hills, both the Lakota and Cheyenne nations, had truly minimized the agency for their tribes alone with other casualties such as the killing of Crazy Horse.
These cultural shifts led to the U.S. Congress had revised the provisions of the Fort Laramie Treaty and had stole the Black Hills away from the Lakota, less land for the Great Sioux reservation. 10% of the Lakota men had agreed to these terms, a violation of the treaty where it had required three-fourths of adult makes to agree to ant changes.
The Lakota people never fully accepted the taking of the Black Hills which is rightfully theirs, and they had sought redress in Congress with a series of legal actions that led this suit to be determined in a Supreme Court decision in 1980.
Justice Blackmun wrote the 8-1 majority decision, highlighting that this case was towards the Black Hills and the creation of the reservation of Great Sioux under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. The law of 1877 had the “effect of abrogating the earlier Fort Laramie Treaty.”
This response was based on the language of the first version of the treaty, with Article 7 that declared that three-fourths of all adult male Indians had to agree to any decision about the land. Blackmun's writing for the majority on this section was clear and concise.
The majority also concluded that the law of 1877 did not impact “a mere change in the form of investment of Indian Tribal Property.” The law had made the “exclusive occupation of the Sioux by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868” not a guarantee, with the court deciding that it was up to the U.S. government to financially compensate the Lakota Nation, with interest, for the robbery of the Black Hills land.
In the dissenting opinion, Justice Rehnquist made an argument that Congress in 1978 had overstepped their legislative power as it passed new ruling that would give access for Lakota to sue the U.S. government.
Rehnquist quoted that “nothing other than an exercise of judicial power reserved to Article 3 courts that may not be performed by the Legislative Branch.”
He continues on by saying “It seems to me unfair to judge by the light of ‘revisionist' historians or the mores of another era actions that were taken under pressure of time more than a century ago,” referring to the legislative decisions made in 1877.
This dissenting perspective is very inconsiderate and reductive towards the Lakota Nation towards this day. The Black Hills has now become a major tourist site in South Dakota with making over $2 billion a year, around Mount Rushmore.
Reservations that live on Lakota land are some of the poorest communities in the country. With this thought that the treaty was miswritten or even approached improperly shows how obtaining treaty rights for Native Nations from the government is not an easy process.
The United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians is an important case to examine and discuss within academic circles and amongst our local community. The Black Hills is a sacred place to the Lakota, but they are taken over with carved men who were the operators of taking land from the owning tribes. Acknowledging the legitimacy of the Fort Lamarie Treaty, this case had confirmed that treaties are not meant to be trampled documents or seen as temporary, along with learning more about indigenous groups around us.
This treaty and the land of the Great Sioux Reservation themselves are always important to prioritize and value, and the refusal of taking that compensation for the taking of the Black Hills emphasizes the sacredness of land and spiritual power of the Lakota people and their home.