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The Power of Promises: Rethinking Indian Treaties in the Pacific Northwest

By Alexandra Harmon

Review By Paulette Regan

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 171 Autumn 2011  | p. 133-135

This multidisciplinary, transnational volume is a welcome addition to treaty literature in Canada and the United States. Situating treaty-making in the Pacific Northwest within a broader global context of imperialism and colonial indigenous-settler relations, the various authors convey the historical importance and contemporary relevance of treaties on both sides of the border. In the introductory essay, editor Alexandra Harmon makes a convincing argument for the need to study the treaties negotiated in the Pacific Northwest between 1850 and 1856 (the Stevens Treaties in Washington State and the Douglas Treaties in British Columbia) through a “wide-angle geographical lens” that transcends “present national borders and political jurisdictions” (11). For Harmon, the importance of a scholarly rethinking of the treaties lies not only in their practical significance for litigation – the outcomes of which have very real political, economic, and legal consequences for indigenous peoples – but also in the new insights they provide into treaties as “modern origin stories” (26) that shape collective ethno-historical identities and form the foundational mythologies of national narratives. Treaty stories are often highly contested stories – conflicting indigenous and settler interpretations of the colonial past told in a courtroom setting. At the same time, treaty stories conveyed in public settings have the potential to re-story the history of settler states in decolonizing ways. The “power of promises” that lay at the heart of treaty relationships can then be a catalyst for political and socio-economic change. 

The book is structured thematically to guide the reader through an impressive range of topics. Part 1, “Colonial Conceits,” examines the macro and micro techniques by which indigenous peoples were dispossessed of their lands and resources. Kent McNeil questions the political and moral legitimacy and legal validity of international imperial treaties, such as the Oregon Treaty of 1846, which were signed without the consent of sovereign indigenous nations. Paige Raibmon explores the genealogy of settler land settlement practices and intermarriage between settlers and indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest to remind us that, while policy and law may prescribe, colonial practices shift power and identity in complex and sometimes unintended ways. In Part 2, “Cross- Border Influences,” Hamar Foster and Alan Grove argue that colonial officials in Oregon and Washington and British Columbia who comprised the “administrative and judicial elites” maintained “close ties” (90) across the border that help to explain why treaty-making in British Columbia ceased after the Douglas treaties were signed. Douglas C. Harris examines the strong influence of US court decisions, particularly the Boldt decision, on Canadian jurisprudence related to Aboriginal fishing rights. 

In Part 3, “Indigenous Interpretations and Responses,” Chris Friday looks at how indigenous oral traditions and treaty-making practices involving public performance adapted over time to become acts of spoken and embodied resistance that disrupt the settler version of the treaty story. The essays by Andrew H. Fisher and Russel Lawrence Barsh, respectively, provide ethnohistorical interpretations of how US court decisions on treaty and fishing rights have reconfigured Indian identity and, in some cases, exacerbated intra-and inter-tribal conflict. In a case study of the Kennewick Man controversy and subsequent court ruling against tribes that sought the repatriation of the remains for burial, Bruce Rigsby argues that, in ceding treaty lands, indigenous peoples did not cede their sovereign rights over burial sites. In Part 4, “Power Relations in Contemporary Forums,” Arthur J. Ray offers an insightful look at the challenges he faced as an academic expert witness charged with educating the Canadian courts about the history of the western Canadian fur trade as it relates to Aboriginal title and treaty rights. He explains the shortcomings of the litigation process, concluding that the courtroom makes a poor classroom for understanding the complexities of history when attempting to determine the rights of indigenous peoples. The final two essays in this section analyze modern treaty or land claims agreements. Ravi de Costa argues that the modern treaty negotiation process currently underway in British Columbia, with its boilerplate, highly technical agreements, bears little resemblance to treaty-making of the past. Treaty-making in democratic states is a “consent-seeking” process, which requires ongoing negotiations between indigenous peoples and the state, rather than a striving for unattainable “certainty” (315). Robert T. Anderson examines the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the Nez Perce Water Rights settlement agreement to argue that, despite the discourse of self-determination that emerges in the United States in the 1970s, modern claims agreements and water rights settlements are modelled on nineteenth-century treaty negotiations in which mandates were determined by the federal government and tribal representatives were at a distinct disadvantage. 

Together, these essays provide a comprehensive, thought-provoking overview of treaties in the Pacific Northwest, along with fresh perspectives on their significance for indigenous-settler relations today. The Power of Promises is highly recommended for undergraduate and graduate courses and will be of interest to indigenous peoples, scholars, and policy-makers in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. 


The Power of Promises: Rethinking Indian Treaties in the Pacific Northwest

Edited by Alexandra Harmon

Seattle: University of Washington Press 2008. 358 pp. $28.95 paper.