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Treaties Still Matter in Minnesota

April 4, 2012 | By Federal/State Partnership Staff

"I understand what you want... from the few words I have heard you speak. You want land."

—Flat Mouth [Aish-Ke-Vo-Go-Zhe, or Bird with Leaf Green Bill], Ojibwe leader at 1855 treaty

For many Americans, treaties agreed upon and signed in the 1800’s have little bearing on how their lives are lived today. What the Minnesota Humanities Center discovered, however, was that these treaties, particularly land cessation treaties signed between 1805 and 1867 between the Dakota and Ojibwe people and the United States government, were in fact extremely relevant and important to a large number of Minnesotans; particularly the descendants of the Dakota and Ojibwe who still live, hunt, farm, and fish in many of the same places their ancestors once occupied.

In August 2010, a unique partnership was created between the Minnesota Humanities Center, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. These three entities drafted a resolution that was approved unanimously by the tribes residing in Minnesota allowing an exhibition on treaties and their history to be developed as an educational tool for Minnesota audiences.

Be it Finally Resolved that the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council supports the work initiative by the Minnesota Humanities Center in the development of the partnership between the Minnesota Humanities Center, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and the first ever Minnesota American Indian Treaties project in the state of Minnesota.  August 24, 2010

Their partnership started work on the first Minnesota American Indian Treaties project in the state of Minnesota. It also lead to the creation of a community-based exhibit: Why Treaties Matter: Self-Government in the Dakota and Ojibwe Nations. The exhibit seeks to explore the relationships between the Dakota and Ojibwe Indian Nations and the United States government using a video presentation and 20 text and image panels that discuss how treaties have affected the land and lifeways of these indigenous populations, and why these binding agreements between nations matter today. The knowledge, insight, and contemporary and historical perspective of tribal members within the partnership has acted as the foundation upon which this exhibit was built. It also has allowed this exhibit to serve as a vehicle for authentic Dakota and Ojibwe voices to tell their stories of sovereignty, adaptability, and sustainability.

Annamarie Hill-Kleinhans (Red Lake Ojibwe), the Executive Director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, one of the partners in the exhibition, notes:

[the partners] sought to create something of lasting value which was known to be absent from the education system in Minnesota yet considered vital to understand our true foundation of this state and the resulting relationship between the state and tribes today.  With that mission in mind, “Why Treaties Matter” was created, a beautiful and engaging presentation comprised of a snapshot of the lives and voices of Dakota and Ojibwe tribal leaders and members today whose existence cannot be separated from these documents signed so long ago.   Likewise, non-Indian viewers will come to understand how their lives as Minnesota citizens cannot be separated from the very same Indian treaties that paved the way for their ancestors and their families and lives today.

Dr. David O'Fallon, President/CEO of the Minnesota Humanities Center writes:

Most Minnesotans do not understand that the Ojibwe and Dakota nations are sovereign nations; and you see this played out in the news media, especially during the hunting and fishing seasons. The treaties are agreements between nations and understanding this is the first step – and a step into a common and sustainable future. Why Treaties Matter is an exhibit, an event, and an ongoing conversation around the state. We want to honor the deep history that is being introduced and we firmly believe this exhibit is critical to this conversation and critical to the future we will share.

In addition to the Treaties exhibit, a companion website ( was created to allow further exploration of the Dakota and Ojibwe--U.S. treaties. Various relationships important to the Dakota and the Ojibwe are highlighted that include relationships to land, familial relationships, and relationships built through business interests such as the fur trade, mining, and transportation. Online visitors can also go deeper in to the history of the land cessation treaties, exploring each treaty individually and then placing it in the context of the treaty timeline. A valuable video resource of interviews with tribe members, young and old, was also created and should not be missed.

The traveling exhibit for Why Treaties Matter opened in August 2011 at the White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota. Since then it has toured thirteen other locations across the state reaching nearly 8,200 visitors. The exhibit even paid a visit to Minnesota's state capitol building in St. Paul for the first week of the state's 2012 legislative session, January 2-31, 2012, with Governor Mark Dayton providing an introduction to the exhibit.

Thus far, the exhibition has been a resounding success. Kevin Leecy, Chairman of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and Chairman of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, states: "The partnership that made this unique exhibit possible was forged in mutual understanding and respect with a common goal that we share this important history and, in the process, educate Minnesota’s citizens about the little known history of the Dakota and Ojibwe people of this land we call Minnesota. ...I am very pleased to report that the exhibit has had nothing but the highest praise in every community – non-Native and Native – where it has been shown. This is a tribute to the partnership that made this project possible."

There are nine more scheduled stops of the exhibit's itinerary, with more host sites to be added. For more information on the exhibit's travel itinerary, visit the Minnesota Humanities Center's Why Treaties Matter website.