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VIVIAN DELGADO: Indigenous women's roles in treaties

In my work with treaties, I have noticed there has been little speculation about women and treaties. In the past, across the Indigenous nations found in the United States it appears very little was known about women and their involvement with treaties. What I have learned is that their presence was rarely spoken about, and their voices were minimally heard among the U.S. government officials during the period of treaty making. In more recent times, women have spoken about treaties and their knowledge in relationship to their own nations is coming from a great depth.

Germaine Tremmel, a board member at Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center in South Dakota, stated in 1995 that, "many tribes were based on matriarchal societies. Women were chiefs and leaders and some were warriors. However, the point of view of Christianity and the early colonizers, including the military, was to change the roles for women in order to break up the tribe. Women became to be considered less than men and to be treated as slaves for the household. Now women are ignored in the political process. Since we as women had no representation in the treaties, we consider ourselves non-signers of the Indian Treaties and we declare the treaties invalid."

Treaties were originally peace agreements written to represent entire nations in negotiations between those nations and the U.S. government. What they in fact became is quite different, especially since Indigenous Nations lived up to those treaties while most treaties were broken and were never honored by the U.S. government. From that time to present, Indigenous treaty councils meet to discuss the "law of the land" and stress the importance of their treaties as part of their ongoing history with the U.S. government.

There are many variations of how treaties originated, how women were treated before and after negotiations and how they look different from tribe to tribe. For example, the federally recognized Indigenous communities in the Southwest designated as Pueblo at the time Spain ceded territory to the U.S. after the American Revolution are legally recognized as Pueblo by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Some of the Pueblos came under jurisdiction of the U.S. by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo with Mexico. Mexico had briefly gained rule over territory in the Southwest ceded by Spain after Mexican independence. The treaty in and of itself resulted in Mexico losing more than half of their original land base that extended into the U.S. southwest territories. There is no distinct reference to women in this treaty, although Pueblo Nations of the southwest are matriarchal.

In North and South Carolina, the treaty interactions among the Cherokee from early contacts were hostile and (treaties) peace agreements did not stop the wars. The women had less than ideal conditions and were treated poorly, which left them with little or no opportunity for negotiations. However, for good or bad, they did express themselves. As far back as 1776, Nancy Ward, known as the "War Woman," broke the sacred code of silence and warned local settlers by letter that the Cherokee were about to attack several settlements. Another view of the presence of women occurred during the American Revolution when Americans began setting up slave auctions and sold Cherokee women and children to raise money for their militia.

In closing, the women's suffrage image "Savagery to Civilization" was published by Puck Publishing Corp. in 1914, depicting white women marching for their rights, while Indigenous women are seen higher up on a rock, having already obtained that very equality. The image now resides in the Library of Congress. Set inside the image are these words:

"We, the women of the Iroquois

Own the Land, the Lodge, the Children

Ours is the right to adoption, life or death;

Ours is the right to raise up and depose chiefs;

Ours is the right to representation in all councils;

Ours is the right to make and abrogate treaties;

Ours is the supervision over domestic and foreign policies;

Ours is the trusteeship of tribal property;

Our lives are valued again as high as a man's."

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