White Man’s Paper Trail: Grand Councils and Treaty-making on the Central Plains

by Stan Hoig, University Press of Colorado, Boulder, 2006, $34.95.

Treaty-making between the U.S. government and the Plains Indians was a flawed but intriguing process that did resolve some 19th-century conflicts and did keep the peace—but never for too long. While technically the Indians may have been the first to violate most of these treaties (see “The Indian Trail of Broken Treaties,” by Gregory Michno, in the August 2006 Wild West), historian Stan Hoig contends that the overwhelming hard truth was that “American Indian tribes were victimized time and time again through the white man’s treaty-making.” At the same time, Hoig admits that “the treaty system may have been the only humanely plausible method of advancing one society over another.” Many of the Christians involved in the treaty process did believe they were acting for the Indians’ good. Still, the inevitable happened during the treaty years (the formal treaty system was abandoned in 1871)—the Indians kept losing more and more land, as well as their self-determination.

Hoig draws on records and transcripts of treaty councils in Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, Wyoming and the Dakotas. It is through these documents that we know the names of many of the Indian leaders, military officers and commissioners who were involved in the partitioning of the West. At the councils, Indian leaders frequently expressed their opinions, and their speeches were usually recorded. Thus history was made as much on those occasions as during times of fighting between soldiers and Indians. “Even today,” Hoig points out, “the treaties and agreements stand as the bedrock of the Indians’ remaining rights and protection by law.” In his conclusion, the author addresses an important point often forgotten today. The treaty process was imperfect and often terribly unfair, but who then or now could suggest anything better? The Europeans were not going to magically disappear or stop invading what was once the Indians’ domain. The white man’s paper trail was longer than the Oregon Trail and wider than the Trail of Tears, but even had no such paper trail existed, the white man’s roads, bridges and houses would still have been built.

 

Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here