native american treaties
The Historic Victory at Standing Rock
What it means, what the law says, and what comes next
By Robinson Meyer


The remarkable outcome of the Standing Rock protest may let us glimpse the coming years of the American environmental movement. A group of protesters upended their lives to defend the claim that the tribe should have a say over its natural resources. Specifically, the “water protectors” claimed that the legal rights granted to them by the United States government—through treaties in the 19th century and through federal laws in the 20th—should be as valid today as any other promissory note.

Against the odds and the expectations, the group swelled. It captured the sympathies of millions of people around the country and the globe. Eventually, it awoke the moral imagination of the federal regulatory state. Now a years-long battle in court—over statutory particularities, over the level of acceptable risk, over the letter versus the spirit of the law—will follow.

What won this victory at Standing Rock? The answer is indisputable. In great numbers, people put their bodies in the way to declare and defend their rights. In so doing, they revealed what legal rights are: not just idle promises, not just nice things to have, but the material guarantee of safe drinking water and community self-determination. In so doing, they forced a moral reckoning within the federal deep state, the multitude of administrators and civil servants who ensure the day-to-day functioning of the United States government. In so doing, they pose a question: Can the same deep state defend the virtue and integrity of its decisions in the years to come? The consequences  will ripple far beyond the grassy plains of North Dakota.



I recently returned from Standing Rock in North Dakota. As some of you may know, there is an Oil Pipeline routed to go under the Missouri River adjacent to The Standing Rock Native American reservation and through Treaty land.
During my visit I was able to get candid interviews where people spoke about there experience and reason for being there, one of them being a direct descendent of Chief Crazy Horse. All in the Name of Protecting Water because Water is Life!


General William T. Sherman, other military personnel, and Indian Peace Commissioners negotiating with Cheyenne and Arapahoe leaders, Medicine Lodge Creek

Photographer: Alexander Gardner
Date: June 1868
From the William Blackmore Collection, Negative Number 058659

Portrait of Native American Utes in Denver, Colorado, with government officials, identified left to right: “O-re-kis” (Moache or Muache Ute), “Alexandro (Moache) "Corutz” “Muache Chief) "To-ha” (Moache), John Ward (interpreter), James B. Thompson (sp. agt.) W. F. Parker En. Rod & Gun (?), T. C. Banks, Cor. Rod & Gun (?)   - 1872              


April 29th 1868: Fort Laramie Treaty signed

On this day in 1868, the Fort Laramie Treaty was signed by the United States government and representatives of the Sioux Nation. The treaty officially recognised the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming as part of the Great Sioux Reservation, and set the land aside for the exclusive use of its indigenous inhabitants. During the nineteenth century, spurred by the overcrowding of Eastern states and by the providential mission of ‘Manifest Destiny’, Americans increasingly sought to expand westward. As settlers encroached on Native American land, violence became an integral part of life on the frontier. A congressional committee report in 1867 encouraged the establishment of an Indian Peace Commission, with the intention of ending the conflict. The U.S. government sought to make treaties with Native Americans which would force them to give up their land and move onto western reservations. One such treaty was made in Fort Laramie, Wyoming, in 1868. However, the U.S. soon sent General George Custer to the Black Hills in 1874 in search of gold mines. Once gold was discovered, prospectors descended on the area, and the army began to confront the Sioux. In 1876, Custer’s army at the Little Bighorn river was annihilated by Sioux and Cheyenne fighters. Despite this devastating loss, the war continued, and in 1877 the United States confiscated the Black Hills. The Sioux people continued to protest the illegal seizure of their ancestral land. They won a significant legal victory in 1980, when the Supreme Court ordered financial compensation for the loss of the land; the Sioux, however, refused payment and continued to demand the return of their land.

“From this day forward all war between the parties to this agreement shall for ever cease. The government of the United States desires peace, and its honor is hereby pledged to keep it.”
- Article I of the Fort Laramie Treaty, 1868

Studio portrait (sitting and standing) of Native American (Ute) and white men and women in Washington, D. C. for the Brunot Treaty signing - Chamberlain - 1874 - Left to right- Back row Washington (Northern Ute), Susan (sister of Chief Ouray), Johnson #2 (Susan’s husband), Capt. Jack (leader of Thornberg ambush), John. Middle row: Uriah M. Curtis (First interpreter for Northern Utes), J. B. Thompson (agent at the Denver Ute Agency), Chas Adams (agent of the Los Pinos Agency, 1872-75), Otto Mears. Front row: Guerro (not Ouray’s father), Chipeta, Ouray, Piah (Tabeguache Ute chief).                  

Delegation of Colorado Ute Indians together with white escorts in Washington D. C. who formulated the Kit Carson Treaty of 1868 

Image of a oval portrait of Kit Carson and a triptych of standing portraits of the delegation of representatives from the Tabeguache, Moache, Capote, Weeminuche, Yampa, Grand River, and Uintah bands of Native American Utes and white delegates in Washington D. C. to sign the Kit Carson Treaty, providing a single reservation of all Ute bands with agencies at Los Pinos and Grand River, Colorado. First group portrait includes “Ank-o-tash, Pe-a-ach, Su-ru-ipe, G. M. Curtis, interpreter;” second group: “Geo. M. Chilcott, Colorado Delegate Congress, Sa-wa-ich, Albert G. Boone, grandson Dan'l Boone, A. C. Hunt, Gov. Colorado, Capt. Jack, Nic-a-a-gat, Hiram P. Bennet, 1st Delegate to Congress Colorado; third group: "Lafayette Head, Ind. Agt., Daniel C. Oaks, Ind. Agt., Waro, Ouray, Edward Kellogg, Capote.”                                

Little Robe, Cheyenne Chief

Photographer: William Henry Jackson
Date: 1878?
From the William Blackmore collection, Negative Number 058636

Little Robe survived the massacre at Sand Creek, Colorado, on November 29, 1864, where he lost most of his family. Despite (or because of) the violence he witnessed during the American Indian Wars, Little Robe became an advocate for peace, leading treaty negotiations and diplomatic delegations until his death in 1886.

Native American Lands Sold under the Dawes Act

By 1871, the federal government stopped signing treaties with Native Americans and replaced the treaty system with a law giving individual Indians ownership of land that had been tribal property. This “Indian Homestead Act,” official known as the Dawes Act, was a way for some Indians to become U.S. citizens.