Why Author Martin Case is Looking Forward to The Relentless Business of Treaties: Two Critical Perspectives

On Thursday, Sept. 13, I will be participating in an event and conversation — The Relentless Business of Treaties: Two Critical Perspectives — at the Minnesota State Capitol. I’m looking forward to this conversation with Dr. David Wilkins where he and I will discuss those solemn agreements between indigenous nations and the United States that so profoundly shape the political, cultural and economic landscape of our continent.

Dr. Wilkins — the McKnight Presidential Professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota — is renowned for his insights about indigenous sovereignty and about traditions in indigenous diplomacy. Indigenous sovereignty runs like a living spine through the entire history of the continent, from before the founding of the U.S. to the present day. It is a subject that is important to all Americans, and I’m honored to join him in a dialogue.

Our conversation, presented with David’s able guidance, began last month at an event in Red Lake. The backdrop for our September conversation will be MHC’s “Why Treaties Matter: Self Government in the Dakota and Ojibwe Nations” exhibit. This exhibit, which is now permanently on display at the State Capitol, focuses on those treaties that continue to affect people and land in what is now Minnesota. David and I, however, will begin our discussion through a wider lens, and consider treaty making in general as international agreements first among indigenous peoples, and then between indigenous nations and the United States.

My part of the conversation will draw from information I presented in my new book, “The Relentless Business of Treaties: How Indigenous Land Became US Property,” published this summer by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. The book is an examination of the interests — commercial and cultural — that drove U.S. expansion through those treaties with indigenous nations. In writing the book, and in my conversation with David, I’ve come to consider two sets of questions that I think resonate in our society today.

First, what drives a nation to the point where it conducts an “ethnic cleansing” campaign? That’s one of the harshest, most violent actions in the history of any nation: the identification of one group of people who are targeted for forced removal from a society. What motivates such an act? Who benefits? How is the idea sold in public discourse? What are the mechanisms that usher such an act through democratic political processes? How did a democracy arrive at the extremity of the Indian Removal Act?

And second, how does such an extremity as ethnic cleansing become an unread footnote in a nation’s historical narrative, often unacknowledged and always in danger of being buried under other stories about America’s past? Americans have been quick to recognize and to harshly judge such actions when undertaken by other nations. But we generally relegate this momentous event to the past, occasionally memorializing it as a measure of how enlightened we’ve become as a nation since those dark days long ago.

In fact, of course, ethnic cleansing is only one extreme event in the extremely contentious history of U.S.-Indian relations. Those relations remain very much a part of our world, and the dynamics that led to ethnic cleansing in the U.S. continue to assert their legacy on political discourse today. The treaties have been, and still are, pivotal events in the histories of North American nations. In our conversation at the Capitol, David will place treaties within the traditions of indigenous diplomacy; I will bring information about the interests that represented the U.S. at those events. I’m not sure where the conversation will take us, but I know that we will share the assumption that the treaties are not only products of the past, but highly relevant to the immediate present, from any point of view.

Marty Case

Author: Marty Case

Martin Case works with Allies: Media/Art, researching the networks of people and businesses that represented the U.S. in treaties with American Indian groups. His work challenges the “master narrative” that shapes many assumptions about U.S. history and identity. He has also worked as Director of Development and Planning for a state-wide arts organization, and as writing and planning consultant to 45 widely diverse organizations in the fields of art, culture, education, social service, religion, and politics. Most recently, he is the author of “The Relentless Business of Treaties: How Indigenous Land Became U.S. Property.”

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