Nation to Nation

“The Great Smoke” case features a series of pipes and pipe bags as part of The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian’s latest exhibition, Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, on Tuesday, September 16, 2014 in Washington, DC. Smoking played an important role at the Horse Creek Treaty gathering. The exhibition opens to the public at the National Museum of the American Indian on September 21, 2014. (Paul Morigi/AP Images for The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian)

Since the National Museum of the American Indian has the best food of the Smithsonian institutions, it’s easy to find an excuse to visit it should I be museuming on The Mall. And once I’m inside it’s easy to stay and wander around. So after having lunch after visiting the Hirshhorn, I ended up exploring a number of the exhibits in the Museum of the American Indian.

Nation to Nation looks at the history of treaties between Indian nations and the United States, or colonies which would become the United States. I was curious and apprehensive walking in to this show since that history isn’t one which covers the United States in a lot of glory. My biggest hope was that I wouldn’t get too pissed off—whether in the brutality of the history covered or, even worse, by letting that history off the hook.

Thankfully I didn’t get too upset either way. The show is very good. It covers a whole range of treaties starting with those between the Colonies and various Indian Nations and it gets into what worked, what didn’t, and how even when things worked they only worked for maybe a generation.* It went into communication issues both in terms of how the different parties value written versus oral commitments** and how certain concepts were untranslatable.*** It covered the points of view and goals that the negotiating parties were coming from and how those points of views changed during negotiation.

*Best example here is William Penn’s treaty with the Lenape. 

**Both in the initial agreement and in how it’s remembered for the future.

***From concrete concepts like reservations to more abstract ones like who has the authority to make decisions on behalf of an entire group.

And it didn’t shy away from the repeated displacement of Indian Nations as settlers kept moving west. It details the brutality and death toll of the forced marches. It laments the loss of botanical and medicinal knowledge which accompanied moving away from native lands. It poses the difficult choice many Indians faced about staying with—and as part of—the tribe by selling their land and moving west as well or by taking that money and trying to stay “at home” even if it meant being detribalized.*

*The legacy of that choice is still complicating things today.

Nor did it ignore how the treaties often put the US Government at odds with what the local authorities wanted. In many cases, the US Government was negotiating treaties to protect the Indians from hostile states and settlers. Sometimes this worked out and prevented—or at least delayed—conflicts such as the one between Georgia and the Creek Nation. Other times, such as in California, the state was able to successfully lobby Congress to not ratify the treaty—resulting in an extermination campaign becoming part of the gold rush.

I appreciated how throughout the timeline, while centering Indian priorities, the exhibit also managed to tell the history of the United States in how its priorities changed as it matured as a country. Where the early treaties are chiefly concerned with keeping the peace and avoiding any armed conflicts that the newly-formed country couldn’t afford, later treaties become more and more explicitly about taking land and, effectively, building empire across the continent.

By the middle of the 19th century, as the military might of the US has increased to where it doesn’t have to worry about armed conflict as much, the treaty negotiations become more one-sided and the US demands become more complicated. It’s no longer just about displacing people so you can live on their land, it’s about land as an exploitable resource for mining, commercial agriculture, or transportation right of ways.

But what I appreciated most is how the exhibit follows the history all the way through to the present day. It’s very clear that, despite the history of broken promises, the fact that there were agreements between the US and Indian Nations remains an important precedent to remember. It’s why the Haudenosaunee insist on receiving the cloth from the Treaty of Canandaigua rather than accepting a monetary payment. The symbolism of the agreement and the recognition by the US Government matters more than the payment now. It’s how the preservation of fishing grounds in the Medicine Creek Treaty are still legally valid today. It’s the way that native children have to be treated as the citizens of those Indian Nations which they are.

I only wish that in the current-day sections of this show, in addition to the political/legal movements in gaining and maintaining increased Indian sovereignty, there was also information about things like the Dakota Access Pipeline. There’s a real sense that most of the conflict and negotiation regarding these treaties has moved to Washington DC or is taking place inside courtrooms. That there are also conflicts on the ground is important to remember. Especially when one of the most-visible conflicts is currently occurring in territory which is covered in one of the treaties which is on display. It shouldn’t be up to the audience to make those connections.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

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