In 1868, Chief Tendoy—the leader of a mixed band of Shoshone, Bannock and Sheepeaters in southwest Montana—negotiated a treaty “in good faith” to cede 32,000 square miles of land to the United States government and settle onto a permanent reservation in central Idaho.
Though the treaty was never formally ratified, the U.S. took ownership of the land 1875 and the band moved to the Salmon River area. Just 30 years later, however, the government forced them off that land, compelling them to undertake a 200-mile journey south to what is now the Fort Hall Indian Reservation.
The government justified the move by citing the unratified status of the initial treaty, arguing that the guarantee of a permanent reservation on the Salmon River was never legally binding. One might think that same argument would nullify the government’s acquisition of the band’s territory in Montana, but, unsurprisingly, the U.S. held onto this massive tract.
This historical episode forms the subject matter of a new documentary titled “In Good Faith,” which The Community Library will screen for free at 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 15.
The film was produced by a team from Washington State University, headed by history professor Orlan Svingen. He and his team of graduate students worked closely with Shoshone, Bannock and Sheepeaters across Montana, Idaho and Wyoming to gain as comprehensive an understanding of this episode—and its continued prevalence—as possible.
“The movie isn’t a tear-in-the-eye hoodwink, it’s a story of pride. These people are direct descendants of Sacagawea,” said Jared Chastain, a graduate student at the time and camera operator for the film. “[The band] had the respect of the locals, they negotiated, they were treated with respect in the process, but due to a bureaucratic change of policy, they were left in the lurch.”
To fully understand the intricacies of the Virginia City Treaty and the federal government’s general disregard of it, one must first consider the extremely convoluted politics, diplomacy and ambiguous jurisprudence that defined U.S.-tribal relations throughout the 19th century.
Since the rediscovery of the unratified treaty, many analysts and observers have criticized the government’s seizure of the Native Americans’ land as fundamentally unconstitutional, definitively violating the Fifth Amendment, and in particular a clause that reads, “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
Far from an isolated, anomalous incident, the case of the Virginia City Treaty helps illuminate a historical question that shaped U.S.-tribal relations for centuries and continues to do so today: To what extent are Native American nations protected by the Constitution?
As in all cases, the letter of the law is up for debate here. Throughout the 19th century, Indian tribes were largely considered foreign entities in the eyes of the federal government. Interactions were carried out in ways that greatly recalled international relations, but due to the military and technological imbalance and a widespread perspective of Indian “otherness,” government agencies frequently acted without the diplomatic tact and fear of consequence they would have with, for example, a European power.
For the most part, too, indigenous tribes did not seek to become integrated citizens of the United States, favoring to preserve their own cultures and, as such, hoping to self-govern.
In a recent article in the Harvard Law Review, UCLA law professor Angela R. Riley analyzed the ways in which Indians were and still are considered “anomalous” to the federal legal system and ambiguously defined as “domestic dependent nations.”
She noted that “the Supreme Court relied on such distinctions to deny First Amendment religious freedoms to American Indians and to hold that tribes were not entitled to compensation under the Fifth Amendment when the U.S. government seized aboriginal title.”
Since neither the federal government nor the tribes themselves were eager to formalize tribal citizenship, the Supreme Court and other federal bodies were essentially given free rein to apply or withhold the Constitution at their discretion.
The events analyzed in “In Good Faith” represent one incident in a long and morally questionable history of American expansionism.
With its local focus on the Fort Hall Reservation, the documentary offers insight on how that area became the Idaho in which we now live.
“Whenever we take it to Idaho, Montana or Wyoming, the local people always offer stories from their own history—they draw connections,” Chastain said.
He stressed that in this case, the states and local communities were free of the blame, which instead fell entirely on bureaucratic apathy.
In the course of making “In Good Faith,” Svingen and his crew turned up evidence that may help settle still-ongoing territorial and reparation negotiations.
“As far as we’re concerned, this [case] has legal backing to prove that some compensation is owed,” Chastain said. “The tribe is currently in negotiation with the Department of the Interior to discuss a potential land exchange.”
The documentary runs just under an hour, and features narration by actor Forrest Goodluck, whom cinemagoers will likely recognize from his appearance in the 2015 Leonardo DiCaprio film “The Revenant.”
Both Jared Chastain and Orlan Svingen will present the film and lead a discussion afterward. Swing by the library’s lecture hall next Wednesday, May 15, at 6 p.m. for this free screening, and learn a vital piece of Idaho’s history.
Visit comlib.org for details.