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Exhibit Review: “Why Treaties Matter”

Stepping into the “Why Treaties Matter: Self Government in the Dakota and Ojibwe Nations” exhibit, visitors find themselves walking through a carefully constructed master narrative with an ethical dimension. “Why Treaties Matter” is a story of victims and asserts the victimhood of Native Peoples, specifically the Dakota and Ojibwe Nations, in the area we now call Minnesota. This slanted narrative is appropriate; with a permanent place in the Minnesota State Capitol Building, the exhibit has a clear political intention and an asserted victimhood of Native Nations is constructive to achieving those goals. Victims, specifically victimized communities, have an almost inexhaustible line of credit to complain, protest and make demands on the grounds of past wrongs and violations that must be made up for in the present.

The exhibit tells the story of how these two Native Minnesotan Nations were coerced into establishing numerous treaties with the United States Government, and how that resulted in the concession of large swaths of land by Native Peoples in exchange for resources and other deliverables. The majority of these treaties were never granted to these Nations, ultimately destroying the livelihood and traditions of these Native Nations. The exhibit also illustrates how with the introduction of U.S. government officials sent to manage their reservations, who brushed aside their traditional forms of governance and ways of life, Native Peoples faced threats to their self-governance and self-determination. 

Up to this point, visitors are convinced of the powerlessness of the Native People to resist the U.S. Government and settlers of the newly formed nation, who outnumber and outgun them. The exhibit drives this home through the tragic story of the Dakota people who, after their 1862 militarized uprising against continued U.S. encroachment of their ancestral lands and continued U.S. failure to meet treaty obligations, was met with the U.S. abrogation of all their treaties, faced the forceful seizure and sale of their lands and their legislated exile from Minnesota. 

The exhibit also presents the intrusion of settlers and U.S. military forces into the Native peoples’ lands as an issue of greed. “I understand what you want…from the few words I have heard you speak, you want land,” reads a highlighted quote from a Chippewa Chief to U.S. officials during treaty negotiations. Similarly, another quote on Native perceptions of American values based on their interactions states that “the greatest object of their lives seems to be to acquire possessions, to be rich. They desire to possess the whole world.” These depictions of the U.S. government and settlers are further reinforced by descriptions of U.S. usage of native lands after acquisition, with the government promptly dividing them into allotments and selling them into private hands and subsequently exploiting the land’s resources. This is in direct contradiction to the Native Nations’ depicted perceptions and treatment of the land. 

The Ojibwe and Dakota nation’s connection to place is rooted in cultural history and spirituality and a deep sense of relation to everything. This is expressed in the Ojibwe language as mitakuye oyasin—“all my relatives”—used in greetings to greet not only fellow humans, but also the surrounding natural life. This connection, we’re told, cements within them a responsibility to maintain and care for the land as it cares for them. We are expected to perceive Native attitudes towards land and resource management as cooperative and moral, not selfish or driven by greed— in a sense superior to American conceptions.

As a result of these depictions, “Why Treaties Matter,” presents Native peoples as more honest and moral than their American settler counterparts. They’re presented as the moral camp, and as a result we are inclined to be more indignant about the injustices that they suffered. The malefactor, or villain, in the victimhood of the Native Nations was of course the U.S. government. However, the U.S. government was also the benefactor of American settlers, the beneficiaries of their government’s good will, who also became villains in the story of Native Peoples through the exploitation of their lands and corrupted deals in which settlers acquired swaths of reservation lands. As a result, in the constructed narrative of “Why Treaties Matter,” Native Peoples, the victims, are depicted as the only moral agents of the story. 

From the very beginning of their visit, the visitor is engaging with a rather blatant politicization of the past. Visitors are drawn to first explore the less-intimidating collection of walled art, as opposed to the perceptively intimidating army of posters. The 10-piece arrangement is centered around the reclamation of the voice and the narrative of Native Peoples, and the sentiment of speaking the truth of their experiences, with the expectation of being heard. This sets the expectation for the rest of the exhibit that Native people will be heard.

This exhibit asserts that treaties matter in the relationship between the U.S. and Native Nations. It describes a history of ignored treaties and the suffering and struggles of Native Peoples that accompanied it alongside the relevance and acknowledgement of treaties today in accordance with the growing independence and success of the community of Native Peoples. As a result, visitors are left knowing that treaties matter in repairing the wrongs committed against Native Peoples while also knowing that, historically, treaties have not mattered to the U.S government. Visitors are then left to consider that the growing independence and success of Native Peoples, also presented in the exhibit, is by the will of the U.S. government, and to be concerned by the possibility of that changing in the future. Because of this, “Why Treaties Matter” doesn’t tell visitors that treaties matter, but that they should, and inspires them to make sure that they do.

The exhibit unveils and gives voice to the unjust experiences of Native Peoples; experiences that have often been disregarded in public history, national history and educational depictions of western expansion–even in the state of Minnesota itself. With this exhibit, the voice of the Native experience finally emerges along with the desire to be remembered. This exhibit is a push for continued change in the right direction, and intends to assert that treaties with Native Nations should matter so that, like today, they continue to matter in the future. “Why Treaties Matter” is a call not to repeat an unjust past.

However, while admirable, it is precisely because of this intent to be heard as to serve the political purpose of enacting some preferred change—or maintaining a status-quo—that would categorize “Why Treaties Matter” as a clear politicization of the past, or rather, the politicization of a specific communal narrative, the collective memory of the Native Nations of Minnesota. While I’m normally against such aggressive politicization of the past, such judgements must be made on a case-by-case basis, and the case here is that the exhibit has an admirable goal in righting wrongs against a disenfranchised community and ensuring the continued reconstruction of their sovereign selves. Personally, I believe that this excuses the exhibit from its clear politicization of the past, but this is a judgement that must be made separately by each visitor.

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