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.
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.