Treaties before the birth of the American nation
Long before Europeans arrived, native peoples were making treaties among themselves. A treaty usually created family-like relationships between groups. The treaty itself was a simple idea. For example, it might require all members of one tribe to act as brothers toward members of another tribe. This relationship could often be stated in a single word, although its full meaning would grow and change from generation to generation.
Native people never sold land or gave it up through treaties. They viewed the land as a resource to be shared. However, treaties could have economic value. Although land could not be sold, it could be shared with relatives. Joining together as a family—or as "brothers"—allowed tribes to share resources. On the Great Plains, for example, allied tribes freely crossed each other's territory in search of game, often camping and hunting together in the summer. In the Pacific Northwest, related tribes fished together and formed huge trade networks extending from Alaska to California.
Treaty-making usually involved exchanging symbolic gifts, which were meant to remind the parties about their agreement. For example, in the Eastern Woodlands, furs and wampum were used as gifts in the treaty-making process. Certain designs in Algonkian and Iroquoian wampum belts came to have special meanings, similar to the written words in a European treaty.
A religious ceremony was often included in the treaty-making process to express the seriousness of promises made between groups. The tribes of the Ohio and Missouri Rivers used the "calumet" or pipe ceremony for this purpose. The great feasts, or potlatches, of the Pacific Northwest also served to ratify treaties among the chiefs of different clans, villages, and nations.
Native North American nations met frequently to retell the history and meaning of their treaties, to resolve disputes, and to reaffirm promises made in the past. For most Native American groups a treaty was not a single document, but a continuing, living relationship, strengthened over the years through meetings.
European treaties and Indian lands
Many of the first relations between European explorers and Native peoples were friendly and respectful, although cautious. Generally, native peoples welcomed the strangers and wanted to trade with them. The Europeans were faced with a new land that was sometimes harsh and unpredictable, and they needed, and frequently received, help from the Native peoples simply in order to survive. At this early stage, treaties were signed between Europeans and Native peoples to show their mutual respect for each other. European law of the sixteenth century (1500s) gave native peoples aboriginal title to their lands. This meant that they owned the land because they were the first, or original, inhabitants.
The Two Row Wampum is an example of an early treaty in which both parties viewed each other as sovereign, independent nations. The Two Row Wampum was signed between the Iroquois and the Dutch, and later by the British. In this treaty, the Europeans kept their "ship"—an expression meaning that they kept their own laws, government, religious beliefs, and customs. Likewise, the Iroquois kept their "great canoe"—meaning that they would keep their Great Law (similar to our Constitution) and their system of democracy. The Europeans expected to travel down the river of life in their "ship" alongside the Iroquois in their "great canoe." They would share in the bounty of the land and waters, but they agreed not to interfere with each other's ways.
Land hunger changes European attitudes
Unfortunately, the spirit of these early treaties was soon broken. Europeans (especially the British) began to change from friendly partners to aggressive colonizers. As they gained experience and population within the new lands, they began to try to dominate Native peoples and take their lands. Many of the colonist groups, through traditions of their own, had the idea that they were superior to Indians, whom they viewed as primitive, non-Christian, and lacking in culture. Some colonial groups began to assume that they had the divine right (a right given by God) to control Indian peoples and their lands.
These attitudes were in direct conflict with European law. The British king had repeatedly issued warnings to colonists about settling on Indian lands, but the colonists continued to ignore his instructions. Even George Washington, the first U.S. president, violated this law. Indians protested illegal settlement on their lands, and occasionally engaged in battle over this issue.
The Royal Proclamation of 1763
Finally, King George III of England issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763. This document stated again that Native nations had aboriginal title to their lands, and that only the British Crown—not the colonists—could buy land from them. The Proclamation set limits on the growth of the colonies, directing that lands beyond colonial areas were Indian territory, where Indian peoples were to be left "unmolested." The Proclamation also described the proper way to make treaties and appointed two ambassadors to conduct relations between the British king and Native American leaders.
One of these ambassadors was Sir William Johnson, who established close relations with the Iroquois. Among other actions, Johnson formally read out the Royal Proclamation as if it were a treaty. In this way he assured gatherings of Indian nations at Niagara in 1764, and at Detroit in 1766, that their lands would be protected. Johnson presented wampum belts and medals to represent this "agreement." But in spite of these and other efforts by Johnson, colonists and settlers continued to ignore the Proclamation and take Native American lands. Conflict between settlers and Indians continued.
Conflict between groups of colonists also increased because very often two or more European powers wanted the same Indian lands. To avoid conflict, the colonists developed the "doctrine of discovery." The doctrine of discovery proclaimed that the first European power to claim a territory had the right to purchase land and settle there. As a result, the English, French, and other colonists became intent on being first to "discover" and claim land. This created a rush of exploration. Unfortunately, the lands they were rushing to explore and settle had been "discovered" long ago by Native peoples and were now their homelands.
Europeans prefer to buy rather than fight
Usually Europeans preferred to buy land rather than fight for it. Although they found many reasons for fighting battles over land, prolonged warfare was costly in human life and money. More importantly, Europeans were vastly outnumbered by Indians, and it was expensive to ship large armies across the Atlantic Ocean. Great tribal confederacies controlled the Great Lakes, Ohio Valley, and the Mississippi. War with these nations might cause other European powers to join in the battle. It simply made more sense for the Europeans to claim land by treaty than by fighting.
In contrast to the way American Indian groups made treaties among themselves, European colonists filled their treaties with military and commercial details. The main goal of most treaties was to acquire land. Europeans viewed treaties as fixed and final documents giving them permanent rights. Most Native groups, on the other hand, viewed treaties as "living documents" that could grow and change over time.
Colonists continued to make treaties with Indians, despite the Royal Proclamation's decree that only the British Crown could do so. Conflict between the colonists and the British king over Indian affairs was actually one of the reasons colonists wanted independence from England. British Americans did not want their westward expansion limited by the king, and this was one of the grievances they listed in the Declaration of Independence.