US Treaties with American Indians a Product of Power Differential in the 1820s

The article, “U.S. Treaty Making with American Indians: Institutional Change and Relative Power, 1784–1911” by Arthur Spirling, appears in the January 2012 issue of the American Journal of Political Science. Here, Professor Spirling provides a summary of its contents:

The history of treaty-making with American Indians is the history of the United States: the country’s current geographic borders and the distribution of its population were shaped by the documents that tribes signed with the federal government throughout the 19th Century. Furthermore, Native American living conditions and living standards today are partly a product of the outcomes promised (and not always delivered) in those treaties.

In my work in the AJPS, I investigated exactly how treaties changed over time: literally, how their language and implications evolved. When historians discuss this period, they point to one date as being potentially important: 1871, the year in which the President lost the right to negotiate treaties on behalf of the United States. From then on, the House of Representatives (in addition to the Senate), would have more of a say in the handling of agreements with Indians.

Could such a constitutional reform make a difference? On the one hand, we might expect it to: political scientists know that institutions matter for outcomes, and 1871 is the start of an era in which a new set of actors, responding to different voter incentives and district pressures, became the main negotiating force. On the other hand, we can imagine that what really matters for the types of “deals” that treaties embody is the relative power of tribes with respect to federal forces, rather than personnel changes in terms of who enters talks.

To get at the answer, I had to first collect the relevant treaties for the time period under study: 1784–1911. There are around 600 of these, which I converted to a format that was computer-readable. Then, I had to compare their language. I did this using a novel range of “text-as-data” tools, which allowed me to analyze how similar or different the treaties were to one another in a numerical way. Along with some prior knowledge about archetypal examples from historical texts, this technique helped me place the treaties on a continuum, from less to more harsh, in terms of the conditions that were required from the tribes signing them. After that, the problem boils down to looking at how and when the average treaty changes its position on that line.

Ultimately, there isn’t much evidence that the events of 1871 ushered in a new regime in practice. Instead the crucial period was 50 years earlier: it was in the 1820s that treaties became more extractive, as an increasingly powerful United States could drive harder and harder “bargains” with tribes that were becoming relatively enervated. What does this tell us? At least one lesson is that, in the face of overwhelming economic and military power, specific institutional arrangements make little difference to the outcomes for the weaker party. This may prove important for the international relations of the United States today.

About the author: Arthur Spirling is the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences in the Department of Government at Harvard University.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.