Treaty of 1837
An unfair exchange
On July 29, 1837, the United States entered into a treaty with several bands of Ojibwe Indians. Under the terms of the treaty, the Indians ceded the northern third of present-day Wisconsin and more than three million acres of land between the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers and south of Lake Mille Lacs in what would become Minnesota to the United States. The United States, in turn, guaranteed to respect certain Indian hunting, fishing, and gathering rights on the ceded land and made payment of annuities for twenty years. According to nominator Joe Niznik of Minneapolis, among other things the treaty "opened the great white pine forest in the St. Croix River valley to lumbermen from the eastern United States. Easy to harvest, with strong and durable wood, the white pine was the lumberman's tree of choice. For over half a century, white pine lumber fueled the economic development and settlement of Minnesota."
In August 1990, the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians filed suit in federal district court against the State of Minnesota, seeking a judgment that it retained the right to hunt, fish, and gather on the land ceded in 1837. At issue were fishing rights in Lake Mille Lacs. After years of litigation, a ruling was made in favor of the Mille Lacs Band in 1994. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ruling in 1999.
The Treaty of 1837 and the subsequent litigation illustrate that one group's loss can be another's gain and that governmental acts can have lasting consequences. It also raises a fundamental question--why were treaties made in the first place? Do Minnesota's Indians have special rights?
A treaty is an agreement, binding and legal, between two or more sovereign nations. When Europeans first came to America, they dealt with native Indian tribes as sovereign nations--that is, as political entities on a par with European nations. As time went on and the United States gained independence from England, the new U.S. government continued to deal with Indian nations as sovereign bodies. Today, federally recognized tribes still maintain sovereignty. The U.S. Constitution upholds treaties as "the supreme law of the land."
In Minnesota and across the country, treaties had and continue to have tremendous impact on the lives of American Indians. The first treaties were made to preserve peace and to make alliances between Indians and Europeans. As Europeans gained power, "treaties of removal," like the Treaty of 1837, allowed European settlers access to land and resources. Finally, "reservation treaties" set aside lands for exclusive use and occupancy of Indians.
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