Exploring Native American Constitutions and Treaties Using Primary Sources

Constitution and Laws of the Cherokee Nation, 1875

Native American nations have long histories of negotiating with other nations and creating their own laws and structures of government. Primary sources from the online collections of the Library of Congress contain a wide variety of items in different formats that document these processes and provide opportunities for students to explore many aspects of this rich and complex history.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many Native American nations adopted written constitutions. The Library’s online collection Native American Constitutions and Legal Materials contains hundreds of constitutions, laws, and even town ordinances, some in Native American languages. Students might compare a document in a Native American language, such as the Constitution and Laws of the Cherokee Nation, to a document published in English, such as Treaties and Laws of the Osage Nation. What are the advantages or disadvantages of each?

These documents provide opportunities not only to explore the foundational principles of these nations, but also to gain a sense of the texture of civic life during the periods the documents were created. A blog post from our colleagues at the Law Library of Congress provides an overview of some of the intriguing items in this collection.

The Library’s online collections also contain many primary sources that document treaties  between Native American nations and the U.S. government, some in print, such as this treaty from the 1780s, and some in illustrations, like this depiction of William Penn making a treaty with Lenape leadership. Many of these illustrations, including this one, were made quite some time after the events depicted, and few or none were created by Native artists. Encourage students to consider why it matters when and by whom the images were created: How might the items be different if a Native artist had created it at the time of the event? More perspectives on treaties can be found in the historic Native American newspapers presented online in Chronicling America. Selecting one or more of these newspapers and searching for specific treaties, or even the word “treaty,” can reveal impassioned discussions and disputes over treaties and their outcomes from across the decades.

The Seneca chief Red Jacket, print possibly from 1836

Image of Chief Wolf Robe wearing a peace medal

Chief Wolf Robe, 1904

Image of Chief Red Shirt wearing a peace medal

Chief Red Shirt, 1904

One additional type of record of Native American nations’ interactions with U.S. officials was intended to be worn instead of read. After a meeting of leaders of the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) and U.S. officials in 1792, the Seneca chief Red Jacket or Sagoyewatha was presented with a silver medal depicting him meeting President George Washington. Several portraits of Red Jacket show him wearing this medal. For much of the 19th century, meetings or agreements between Native American leaders and U.S. government officials were sometimes marked by the gift of similar medals. Students might examine the portrait of Red Jacket or others wearing their medals and consider why they chose – or were asked – to wear the medals in their portraits.

These items provide only partial accounts of complex events and some do not include Native American perspectives on the events described. However, examining these primary sources while asking questions about their origins, their purposes, and their intended audiences can allow students to begin their exploration of diplomatic processes and governmental structures that helped shape the histories and institutions of Native American nations and the government of the U.S.

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