Read the Fine Print: The Pawnee Treaty, Perception, and Questioning Rather Than Accepting “Truthiness”

Yesterday, on an uncharacteristically pleasant day since I arrived in Nebraska, I decided to go to the local park. Going further I figured I’d swing by Arbor Lodge mansion, heralded by locals. A little bit further and I ended up inside, purchasing a ticket to roam the 50+ room home that housed the family of J. Sterling Morton (his eldest son may be known for Morton Salt fame and his youngest of Argo (corn)starch). 

The place has three floors, not including the basement where the restored bowling alley is; it’s a lovely renovation with a teal lacquer to the walls I wish was in my own apartment. Making my way to the next landing I saw the largesse of an oil painting of the Pawnee Table Creek Treaty of 1857 by William Haskell Coffin. In this painting, Native American men dance in an open field wearing nothing more than headdresses and loincloth of sorts. Some carry hatchets, others spears. The settlers, all white, stare stone faced, dare I say questionably, at those in celebration. The imagery itself disturbed me knowing the broad strokes of the history between colonialists and Native Americans (short version, the first group steadily massacred the second). 

On a table to the far right of this painting was a copy of the actual Pawnee Treaty of 1857. If the visual didn’t incite pause, the treaty itself had me stupefied. 

Words like “civilized” were used as were a lot of promises with the caveat that, at any time, the President of the United States could come and take it away. There wasn’t so much fine print as there was blatant print detailing what the Native Americans who would be “civilized” by the new Americans would receive and also the terms to which they needed to agree. They would need to send their children to school to make sure they learned the ways of the immigrants. They would have white people on their land in certain industries the new Americans felt they needed to know. They would receive materials “not to exceed” a certain amount (that came up often) as though they were being bestowed a favor. The first line of Article 5 sums it all up pretty well: “The Pawnees acknowledge their dependence on the Government of the United States” — translated it’s a different form of peonage signed 8 years before the abolishment of slavery.

Now, I’m not getting into a further debate on whether this was right or wrong for the Pawnee Tribe to sign. Strife didn’t stem from the new (white) inhabitants of the country solely, but from other tribes as well. What I am getting at is that when the treaty was right in front of my face for me to read and decipher on my own that I could see how messed up the terms were from the start. How condescending and righteous these clauses were. It reminded me a lot of what the most recent head of U.S. office as well as his Republican predecessor said about people overseas. That they needed to be cultured; that they needed to learn our ways; that by giving us their land, usurping power, we were helping. Their followers, be they willingly ignorant or thinking themselves incredibly profound jumped on that thinking bandwagon. I considered the consistent danger of receiving summaries of our history to have someone else surmise the main point. The way that Arbor Lodge, and in particularly this painting, along with the treaty itself were celebrated made me shiver. But in all honesty, several years ago and I’m sure in many other instances for various other groups, I remain unaware of the larger trials and the pitfalls of trusting others who do not see you as completely human.

I’m finally reading The Underground Railroad which probably exacerbated or further inspired this thinking. That is a book that should make white people uncomfortable, however, I’m also confident that many reading the book of the white persuasion don’t see themselves as the depraved slave owner but as the kind-hearted abolitionist helping slaves to their next stop to freedom, willing to take the blows themselves if they were in such a situation — though thankfully they are not. I wonder if the people working at Arbor Lodge, two very nice, older, bespectacled white women understood the issues of this presentation. Yes, the treaty was available, plain for anyone to see, read, and infer their own thinking, but there’s also the labeling of it as a celebration. Who, exactly, are we celebrating in this instance? 

I don’t know if it’s so much a spoiler as much a plot point, but in Underground Railroad Colson Whitehead depicts the lead character Cora in one of her first stops on the railroad line in a new job she was thought to be perfect for: performing slavery behind glass for museum visitors. What’s noted by author and protagonist is the dulling of the horrors of slavery itself, the performance of it. Putting actors in a space constructed by non-slaves, nor are they slave owners, not exactly, to recreate the horrors for intrigue but also educational purposes. That the slave ships to the slave cabins is bad but this is a thing of the past, aren’t we a grand nation now? 

I haven’t taught children in more than a decade, having no tenacity for it on a long-term basis. But when I was in school, public, higher education, the classroom was about deciphering but also absorbing. “Sure, whatever you say teacher,” in regards to the symbolism in Moby Dick or Emily Dickinson or Huckleberry Finn. If you can’t explain what you see then it isn’t there. Fair enough. But there was also the case of: If you don’t see what I see then it’s inaccurate. This leads to a poor state of affairs. Those that question are considered questionable themselves. Children will speak when spoken to. My mom’s favorite: Do as I say not as I do. (Plot twist: that didn’t work on me past a certain age.) When I teach, or better yet lead workshops, I teach editing. I encourage looking at things with a finer tooth comb, questioning choices not because you’re choices aren’t reliable but because we have to dig deeper. It’s part of my job in publishing. I think if it weren’t for my role as a production editor, copyeditor, proofreader, looking at inconsistencies and inaccuracies daily, I don’t know that my education in academia alone would’ve propelled me to the point I am now. 

I’d love for those who oppose the water protectors at Standing Rock and many other sites to read the Pawnee treaty to start. The flippant nature in which people on Twitter — where everyone has balls behind an avatar — saying this group had their chance. That Native Americans have “plenty” of land. They were given gifts, so why not appreciate it? When they say these things out of malice as well as ignorance I’m going to send them the Pawnee Treaty of 1857 and ask them to read it in full and say, honestly, if they’d agree to these terms. Scrutinize it the way you would a mortgage loan. This isn’t the same as my landlord saying, “I’ll give you a dishwasher costing no more than $150 dollars but also at any time have the legal right to rescind this offer whenever my mood calls for it.” This treaty was a bad contract, the kind an agent or legal mediator would come in and say, “Mofo, don’t sign that we have to go to negotiations.” The U.S. wasn’t looking out for the interest of anyone but the growing government and a select class of citizen. Read it, read it and tell me that this document showcased a concern for Native American citizens rather than the proliferation of gluttonous capitalistic ideals. If you think so, I have a 52-room house to sell you.