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Viewing Indian Treaties from Both Sides of the US-Canada Border

September 30, 2008

The Power of Promises

by Alexandra Harmon, Associate Professor, American Indian Studies

Alexandra Harmon, a former attorney for tribes in Washington State, is now an Associate Professor in American Indian Studies and an Affiliated Faculty in Canadian Studies. Harmon is an historian and the editor of a just-released volume published by UW Press, The Power of Promises: Rethinking Pacific Northwest Indian Treaties.

In 2005 – the sesquicentennial of ten US treaties with Indian tribes in Washington – UW’s Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest hosted a conference to consider the significance of those treaties. Deeming it important to include the views of people outside the US, organizers invited Canadian scholars to participate and enlisted the Canadian Studies Center as a conference co-sponsor. Consequently, half the featured speakers were from Canada, and many other Canadians came to listen, including leaders of several First Nations. So stimulating was the ensuing exchange of ideas that it deserved a wider audience. Thirteen of the speakers therefore contributed essays to a volume recently published by University of Washington Press, The Power of Promises: Rethinking Pacific Northwest Indian Treaties.

Seven of the volume contributors – historians, lawyers, and one interdisciplinary scholar – are Canadian university faculty.

The book attests to the great significance of treaties with indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest on both sides of the international boundary. Treaties from the 1800s are the basis for land titles and rights claimed by millions of people in present-day British Columbia, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. They have been the focus of high-stakes litigation, which has confirmed their continuing legal force. And where the colonial governments took land without indigenous people’s consent, as in British Columbia and Alaska, authorities have found it necessary to negotiate new treaties or agreements.

Essays in The Power of Promises also reveal that the influence of developments pertaining to Indian treaties has crossed the forty-ninth parallel in both directions. Nineteenth-century negotiators for the US and the Crown took note of each other’s legal doctrines and plans for Indians. Euro-Canadian and Euro-American settlers had similar extra-legal methods of expropriating land. More recently, Canadian courts have adopted principles articulated by US judges in treaty rights cases, and indigenous people in both countries have struggled to educate non-Indian judges about treaty history.

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