Famous Indians: A Collection of Short Biographies by Bureau of Indian Affairs

By Bureau of Indian Affairs

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To maintain the fiction that the confinement of Indians on reservations was voluntary, the federal government “negotiated” treaties in which tribal leaders agreed to their own confinement. Today, tribal leaders are adamant that their tribes and the United States government are, and have always been, co-equal sovereigns. But that is mythology masquerading as history. In 1854, for example, Isaac Stevens, the superintendent of Indian affairs for the territory of Washington, met with sixty-two headmen, representing nine tribes, at Medicine Creek, fifteen miles east of Olympia, Washington.

Many of those present, however, did not understand Chinook jargon. Nevertheless, when Shaw finished explaining the treaty in a patois many could not understand, the headmen, all illiterate, signed the Treaty of Medicine Creek with their marks. They did so because, as Shaw explained in 1903, there was not a man of note among all the Indians at that council who did not know that they had not a single right that could be maintained by either force of arms or by law. Every one of them recognized that there was no power that could protect them from the encroachment of the white settlers, save and except the Government of the United States … [which] had possession of the whole country and could do as they [sic] pleased with it.

Because the federal treaties and statutes, Department of the Interior regulations and legal opinions, and judicial decisions that formed the corpus of “Indian law” were a disorganized muddle, in 1938 Assistant Attorney General Carl McFarland, the head of the Lands Division, decided that the attorneys he supervised needed a manual on Indian law. By 1938 Felix Cohen, who by then had worked at the Department of the Interior for five years, was considered the department’s Indian law expert. So McFarland borrowed Cohen to supervise the writing of an Indian law manual.

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