When Chief Blackfoot spoke for the Crow Indian tribe before US Commissioners in August of 1873, he bemoaned a previous treaty, pleading essentially non est factum (what was previously written was not what we had then agreed to).
But his poignant words on that day also reflect the very dynamics at play not just for the Crow Nation but for other Indian tribes as well. On the North American plains, the big, unstoppable machine of white man immigration, gold-digging, all known then as "progress", was set to steam roll over their ancestral land.
The authority of the Commissioners to negotiate came from a law of Congress approved on April 23, 1872 with the following title: "An act to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to negotiate with the Chiefs and the head-men of the Crow tribe of Indians for the surrender of their reservation, or a part thereof, in the territory of Montana". The American commissioners who negotiated with the Indian elders also knew that the Northern Pacific Railroad was on its way.
The traditional enemy of the Crows were the Sioux who lived mostly in territory to the south but who were far greater in number to the Crows. Part of the strategy of the American commissioners was to conclude a treaty with the friendly Crows so to increasingly isolate the more numerous and more aggressive Sioux.
The Commissioners of the government of the United States entered into an agreement - a treaty - with the Crow tribe of Indians at that 1873 Council - essentially a parcel of land adjacent to Judith's Basin in Montana, for $1-million. The proposed agreement had yet to be ratified by the U. S. House of Representatives and was in fact laid before that House during the First Session of the 43rd Congress.
What follows is part of the opening statement made by Blackfoot to the United States commissioners and the rest of the Council at a negotiation session on the treaty, on August 11, 1873.
But first, a playbill of the essential characters, Indian nations and other historical mentions in the statement.
Chief Blackfoot of the Crows
The Blackfoot (sometimes "Blackfeet") is the name of both an original aboriginal tribe and, later, the name given to a confederacy of the Blackfoot with other tribes.1 But they are a separate tribe from the Crows which, circa 1868, lived on the plains of modern-day Montana and were divided into two separate groups, the Mountain Crows and the River Crows.
Here, the name Blackfoot represents the formal name of the spokesperson and second chief of the Mountain Crows Indian tribe.
The culture of North American Indians was, and continues to a much lesser extent today, to give each individual a descriptive names. Blackfoot may have earned his name for the color of his feet, of his footwear or of some ancestral affiliation with the nearby Blackfoot tribe.
Pierre Shane was a "white man". As he was conversant in several Indian languages, he often served as an interpreter.
The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty
The Fort Laramie Treaty was a preliminary agreement negotiated at a previous treaty council held at Fort Laramie in the Dakota Territory on May 7, 1868 between Commissioners of the United States and Indian chiefs and elders; a treaty:
"... of April 29, 1868 ... of which the United States pledged that the Great Sioux Reservation, including the Black Hills, would be set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians ....
The Fort Laramie Treaty was concluded at the culmination of the Powder River War of 1866-1867, a series of military engagements in which the Sioux tribes, led by their great chief, Red Cloud, fought to protect the integrity of earlier-recognized treaty lands from the incursion of white settlers."2
F. D. Pease
Mr. F. D. Pease was designated by the Government of the United States to act as official agent for the Crow Indians. He is also referred to as "Major Pease" indicating a commission with the Armed Forces of the United States.
Pease was popular with the Crows. Blackfoot later commented:
"Pease ... does not drink whisky. He likes us. He does not offer us whisky and we like him. Pease never made any Indians mad at him. The children all like him. He is kind to all of us."
Trip to Washington
After the agreement with the River Crows and with the Mountain Crows, it was decided that Major Pease would select several Indian chiefs representing both tribes to go to Washington to introduce them to the government of the"white man".
One interesting anecdote is that during the negotiations, the Indians asked of the American commissioners that if a treaty was entered into, that they receive a traditional gift of horses, a present they prized above all others". The commissioners approved of this gift.
The Testimony, Verbatim
Blackfoot was not alone to sit in on be negotiations on behalf of the Mountain Crows or the River Crows. But he spoke and his words were recorded. This is the transcript of Chief Blackfoot's words on the first day of talks, August 11, 1873.
Chief Blackfoot, Mountain Crows: I went to Fort Laramie; the old Indians signed the treaty. We came back to the camp and told the young men and they said we had done wrong and they did not want to have anything to do with it. They said "We love the Great Father, and hold on to the hands of our white friend. All the other Indian tribes fight the whites; we do not do so. We love the whites, and we want them to leave us a big country."
All the other Indians go and talk with the Great Father. You take them to Washington. They are bad. They hide their hearts; but they talk good to the Great Father, and you do more for them than for us.
This I want to tell you. Yesterday you spoke to us and we listened to you. If you wish to have peace with all the Indians get them all together and make peace with them. Then I will make peace with them, too.
The Great Spirit made these mountains and rivers for us and all this land. We were told so, and when we go down the river,hunting for food we come back here again. We cross over to the other river and we think it is good. Many years ago the buffalo got sick and died, and Mr. Maldron gave us annuity goods, and since then they have given us something every year.
The guns you give us we do not point at the whites. We do not shoot our white friends.
We are true when we look in your face. On our hands is no white man's blood. When you give us arms to go and fight the Sioux, we fight them to keep our lands from them. When we raise our camp and go for buffalo, some white men go with us. They see what we are doing. They see that we jump over the places that are bloody. On the other side of the river below there are plenty of buffalo. On the mountains are plenty of elk and black-tail deer, and white-tail deer are plenty at the foot of the mountain. All the streams are full of beaver.
In the Yellowstone River the whites catch trout. There are plenty of them. The white men give us food. We know nothing about it. Do not be in a hurry. When we are poor, we will tell you of it.
At Laramie we went to see the commissioners. Now commissioners come to see us, and we listen to what you say. The commissioners told us at Laramie if we remained good friends of the whites we would be taken care of for forty years.
Since we made that treaty it is only five years. You are in a hurry to quit giving us food. I am a young man yet. My teeth are all good. They told us at Laramie we would get food until we were old, and our children after us.
This is not the place for the agency, on this point of rocks. We would like to know who built the agency here. They told us they would give us our food. They promised to send a good agent and good traders, and if they were not good they would be taken away.
Pease never treated us wrong. The young men and the children he always treated right. All that was sent for us he gave us. He was not a thief. He treated us well, and we do not want him to go away from us.
On Sheep Mountain white men come. They are my friends. They marry Crow women. They have children with them. The men talk Crow. When we come from hunting we get off at their doors, and they give us something to eat. We like it.
We raised Shane, (the interpreter). He was a boy when he came here. You ask us what we have to say, and that is what we tell you.
Here is the doctor. When our people are sick he doctors them. He has two children by a Crow woman. We like him.
Here are our traders. When we go hunting they give us ammunition. They gave me a revolver to kill buffalo. We do not know anything about Cross, (a new trader). We do not know his face.
We want the soldiers at Ellis to take the part of the Crows. When they come here to see the giving of annuity goods we give them robes to take with them, and when they hear bad talk about the Crows we want them to speak well of us. When we camp here some of the whites run off with our horses into the mountains. We know about it, but we do not say anything. We have a strong heart, as firm as a rock, and we say nothing about it, but you want to hear what we have to say and I tell you. In Gallatin valley, the Cheyennes, Arapahoes and Sioux made a raid and the people blamed the Crows with it. We want them to quit speaking bad about us.
On the Missouri River, the whites have married into all the different Indian tribes. Their brothers-in-law, the white men, come here and steal our horses. We follow them and find who have them. Some of the Crows went to the Missouri River and got some Crow horses. The white people sent word they were their horses, and we sent them all back. We claim our horses, but they are not brought back.
When we set up our lodge-poles, one reaches to the Yellowstone, the other is on White River; another one goes to Wind River; the other lodges on the Bridger mountains.
This is our land and so we told the commissioners at Fort Laramie, but all kinds of white people come over it and we tell you of it, though we say nothing to them. On this side of the Yellowstone there is a lake; about it are buffalo. It is a rich country; the whites are on it; they are stealing our quartz. It is ours, but we say nothing to them. The whites steal a great deal of our money. We do not want them to go into our country....
The first time I went to Fort Laramie and met the peace commissioners, what each said to the other, we said "Yes, yes." The second time we went we signed the Treaty; but neither of us, my white friends nor the Indian chiefs, said "Yes, yes," to what is in that treaty. What we said to them, and what they said to us, was "Good." We said, "Yes, yes," to it; but it is not in the Treaty.
Shane was there the first time, and what he interpreted to us are not the words that are in the treaty. The first time we went we did not sign the Treaty; we only said "Yes, yes," to each other. The Indian way of making a treaty is to light a pipe, and the Indians and their white friends smoke it. When we were in council at Laramie we asked whether we might eat the buffalo for a long time. They said yes. That is not in the treaty.
We told. them we wanted a big country. They said we should have it; and that is not in the treaty. They promised us plenty of goods, and food for forty years - plenty for all the Crows to eat; but that is not in the Treaty.
Listen to what I say. We asked "Shall we and our children get food for forty years?" They said "Yes" but it is not that way in the Treaty. They told us when we got a good man for agent he should stay with us. But it is not so in the treaty. We asked that the white man's road along Powder River be abandoned, and that the grass be permitted to grow in it. They said "Yes, yes;" but it is not in the Treaty. The land that we used to own we do not think of taking pay for.
We used to own the land in the Mud River Valley. These old Crows you see here were born there. We owned Horse Creek, the Stinking Water, and Heart's Mountains. Many of these Indians were born there.
So we owned the country about Powder River and Tongue River, and many of our young men were born there. So we owned the mouth of Muscleshell, and Crazy Mountain, and Judith Basin. Many of our children were born there. So we told the commissioners. They said "Yes, yes;" but there is nothing about it in the Treaty.
We told them there were many bad Indians, but that we would hold on to the hands of the white man, and would love each other. We told them the Piegans, the Sioux, and other tribes, have killed white men. We told them the whites were afraid of them. I asked them to look at us; that we had no arms, and they should not be afraid of the Crows. They said "Yes, yes;" but it is not so written in the Treaty. The Treaty, you say, has bought all our land except on this side of the river; and what do we get for it?
I am ashamed about it. We sell our land, and what do we get for it? We get a pair of stockings, and when we put them on they go to pieces. They get some old shirts, and have them washed, and give them to us. We put them on and our elbows go right through them. They send us tin kettles. We go to get water to carry to our lodges. We dip the water up, but it all runs out again. That is what we get for our land.
Why do they send us annuity goods? We go to the buffalo country and get skins. Our wives dress them, and we give them to our friends. We give more presents to our white friends than all the annuity goods we get are worth.
And this is what we get for our lands. What goods are given us are no better than we give the whites, and I do not see what we are getting for our lands.
We told the commission at Laramie that the Sioux were in our country on Tongue River. The Sioux and the Crows were at war yet I went into the Sioux camp alone. They offered to give us two hundred and sixty horses and mules, all taken from white men, if we would join them, but we refused to do so. They took me by the arm and asked me to stay with them and fight the whites, but I pulled loose from them and would not do so.
I told the commission that I was asked to hold the whites with my left hand and the Sioux with my right hand. But now I gave my right hand to the whites and would hold on to them; they said "Yes, yes." But none of this is in the Treaty.
We told them we had plenty of fish and game, and when they got scarce we would tell them, and ask help from them. They said "Will you sell the Powder River country, Judith Basin, and Wind River country?" I told them "No;" but that is not in the Treaty.
When Major Camp came here as agent we gave him a present of a large number of robes to send to the Great Father. We never heard that the Great Father got those robes. We would like to hear about them.
The Crow tribe want Major Pease to remain with us as our agent. Some of the young men want him to take them to see the Great Father at Washington.
You ask us to tell you what we want. We want Mexican blankets, elk-teeth, beads, eagle-feathers, and panther and otter skins.
We like fine horses and needle-guns; these things are to us what money is to you.
Chief Blackfoot had spoken but ultimately he would stand alone to say "nay" to the treaty. The closing words of the August 1873 treaty negotiations have been recorded for history and we have posted them here as a PDF document.
- House Executive Document No. 89, 43rd Congress, 1st Session, Agreement with Crow Indians, Letter from the Secretary of the Interior, pages 28-42.
- NOTE 1: The Blackfoot lived in an area sometimes described as the Northern Plains. Their neighbour mostly to the South, and rival were the Sioux. in official government dispatches about treaty negotiations with the Crow Indians, there is mention of the Crow negotiating party as they were making their way to the meeting place with the United States commissioners, being stalked by the Sioux "necessitating great care in the moving of the women, children and camp-equipage", and who stole many of their horses. The traditional territory of the Blackfoot runs far North into what now Canada. The Blackfoot also go by the more traditional name: Niitsitapii. "Blackfoot", they are called, "because of the characteristic black color of their moccasins, painted or darkened with ashes".1
- NOTE 2: The Official State Travel Site of the State of Montana, information retrieved from the Internet on March 7, 2014 [http://visitmt.com/places_to_go/indian_nations/niitsitapi-blackfeet/].
- United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, 448 US 371 (1980). The Fort Laramie Treaty is more extensively described by Mr. Justice Blackmun of the Supreme Court of the United States in that judgment.
Editor's Note: We wish to acknowledge and thank then Public Services Division of the Law Library of Congress for their invaluable assistance in making available some information required to confirm information required in this article.