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Bringing Indian Treaties to a Wider Audience

Archivist David Ferriero

David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States

Since 2014, our neighbor on the National Mall, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), has displayed original treaties between the United States Government and American Indian Nations. Every six months, a different treaty is put on view in the Smithsonian museum’s exhibit “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations.” Facsimiles of the treaties are also on display at the NMAI’s New York City location, where the museum and the National Archives at New York City share space in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House.

Before a treaty goes on display, tribal leaders representing the original signatories are given a special close-up look at the document. It’s a moving scene when descendants of the original peoples examine the names and seals and read the words set down so long ago. The tribal representatives have told me how much it meant to view their tribe’s history.

The most recently displayed treaty is one signed in 1868 between the U.S. Government and the Navajo Nation. This treaty allowed the Navajo to return to their traditional lands in Arizona after the Long Walk and several years of removal. Because of its great importance to the Navajo people, the treaty will be loaned for exhibition to the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona, in honor of the 150th anniversary of its signing. The treaty will be on display during the month of June 2018.

When we began this partnership with the museum in 2014, we planned on a four-year run with eight treaties. It’s been such a success that we are working together to extend the exhibition and the treaty loans until 2021.

This National Archives/Smithsonian partnership and other loans have allowed millions of visitors over the last few years to view and learn about these important documents. But now we are embarking on a new project that can reach an even larger, worldwide audience.

The treaties have long been held in our vault at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC—well protected, but not readily accessible to the public. When an anonymous donor recently proposed funding an effort to digitize material from the vault, we proposed this set of treaties because it is a historically and culturally important collection in need of conservation treatment and also of interest to a wide audience. But more than that, the treaties are still relevant today as tribal leaders and lawyers continue to use them to assert their rights in court, such as in cases over land and water rights.

The gift, through the National Archives Foundation, is allowing us to make more widely available the 377 ratified Indian treaties and their accompanying papers. We will perform much-needed conservation work on the documents and digitize all the contents of the file for each treaty: the treaties themselves as well as Senate resolutions of advice and consent, Presidential ratifications, and proclamations. The digital images will then be made available through the National Archives Catalog.

An additional component to the project is public outreach. We are now planning programs and activities related to the treaties and other Native American records, and we have asked staff at the NMAI for their ideas for developing strategies to reach Native American communities.

Our education staff have developed a series of webinars for teachers: the Native American Professional Development Series. The series features new resources for locating and using federal records related to American Indians and Alaska Natives. In the introductory webinar, teachers will learn to use our new “Native Communities” guides and programs. Subsequent topics will include Native voices, making treaties, Native American stories about the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and more. Educators will also be able to link to our Citizen Archivist initiatives and, the online tool for teaching with documents from the National Archives.

The National Archives and Records Administration is fully committed to its mission of preserving and making accessible the records in its care. This project to digitize the treaties ensures that an important body of records receives needed conservation treatment and is shared with the largest possible audience.

For more on the work of the National Archives and Records Administration, see David Ferriero’s columns on veterans services at the archive, reclaiming stolen archival materials, and digitally preserving presidential records.