History records countless instances of broken treaties and forced relocation of Native Americans as the result of westward expansion. My novel of the Southern Plains Indian Wars, Palo Duro, begins with the negotiations at Medicine Lodge Creek whereat the U.S. government altered the terms of the Little Arkansas Treaty signed just two years prior.
Under the provisions of the new treaties (there would be three in all) the Kiowa, the Apache and the Comanche were required to give up more than 60,000 square miles of their land in the Texas Panhandle in exchange for a reservation in Indian Territory, and the parts of Kansas and Indian Territory previously set aside for the Southern Cheyenne and the Arapahoe were also cut in half.
Earlier in the 1830s the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek, and Cherokee (known collectively as the Five Civilized Tribes) had also been forced from their ancestral lands in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida, and relocated west of the Mississippi to Indian Territory. Thousands died along the way, and the journey became known as the Trail of Tears.
Although the sovereignty of the Indian nations would be affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Worcester vs. Georgia (1832), the demand for more land by white settlers led to the “Indian Removal Act” of 1830. The Act required the U.S. government to negotiate with the tribes in good faith. However the spirit of the law was frequently ignored, and by the 1840s thousands of Native Americans had been driven off their land in the Southeastern United States and force marched to present-day Oklahoma. The Choctaw became the first nation to be forcibly expelled. This tribe was followed by the Creeks. The last to go were the Cherokee.
By 1838 only about 2,000 of the estimated 16,000 Cherokee had “voluntarily” left their homeland. The U.S. Army under General Winfield Scott was authorized to expedite the removal of the holdouts. It is estimated that somewhere between 5,000-8,000 perished from disease and starvation as they made their way westward.
The promises of an unmolested new home for those that survived also failed to materialize. Indian Territory shrank as more and more white settlers encroached on these lands, and when Oklahoma became a state in 1907 the guarantee of this new homeland was gone for good.
Over a hundred years later, on August 23rd 2019, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation announced that the tribe would appoint its first delegate to the House of Representatives. The prospect of a sitting congressional representative is historic. While the tribe’s delegate will lack a chamber vote, for the very first time a Cherokee will sit on House committees (e.g., Appropriations, Ways and Means, etc.) which will provide the Cherokee Nation with direct access to members of Congress who do possess voting power.
What remains uncertain is whether the United States government will honor long standing treaty rights. The provision authorizing representation is contained in the 1835 Treaty of New Echota. Only now has the Cherokee Nation obtained sufficient economic and political clout to move forward, but it remains to be seen whether the treaty will be contested. Treaties negotiated with sovereign nations do not expire, but if history is any indication, those applying to Native Americans can certainly be ignored.
The last chapter in the Southern Plains Indians’ struggle ended much as the first chapter began – in broken promises.
Hopefully the Cherokee Nation and its new delegate to the House of Representatives will write not just a new chapter in Native American history, but one that expresses hope for their future.