Pay What You Vow: The Un-kept Promise of Indigenous American Treaties

Reformed Margins is honored to publish this article from Indigenous American writer Travis Roberts.

Travis McKay Roberts is a Métis social worker, public health researcher, and writer, currently completing advanced degrees from Johns Hopkins University and University of Maryland, Baltimore. Travis has published for RELEVANT, Christ and Pop Culture, Uneven Earth, and the Intersection Project. His writing has also appeared in the Indigenous created, designed, and written video game When Rivers Were Trails. More of his work can be found at He is a member of Restoration Church in Washington, DC, where he lives with his wife, Megan.

Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.

Ecclesiastes 5:5

Good words will not give my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves. I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and all the broken promises.

Chief Joseph, Nez Peirce 

In November of 1866, a battle broke out along a rail line in the shadow of the Bighorn Mountains. The Oglala Lakota chief Red Cloud led a band of warriors against an American cavalry detachment, forcing a humiliating retreat and killing the commanding officer. A month later, Red Cloud brought his forces to bare again, leading to the worst defeat on the Great Plains that America would suffer until Custer’s infamous last stand at Little Bighorn. Over the next two years, the American government would trade hostilities with the tribes of the Great Plains, including the Lakota, the Cheyenne, and the Arapaho. These battles did not, of course, occur in a vacuum. Rather, they were the culmination of centuries of hostilities and a pattern of aggression and occupation carried out by the U.S. government with the purpose of conquering and occupying all land between Canada and Mexico and the Atlantic and Pacific. By 1868, a pattern of military losses, massacres of Indigenous villages, and political pressure from neighboring tribes forced the United States to the negotiating table, and the second Treaty of Fort Laramie was ratified. 

The treaty led directly to the creation of the Great Sioux Reservation, and recognized all of western South Dakota and parts of modern Nebraska as the territory of the Oceti Sakowin (the Seven Council Fires, formed of allied bands of Lakota and Dakota peoples). Any modern map (or even just a visit to Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills) will tell you that these borders were not respected in perpetuity. 

The promise that was made to the Oceti Sakowin was simple – in exchange for a cessation of hostilities, the United States government would provide humanitarian and logistical aid, respect the borders of the agreed upon reserve, and maintain all the terms of the treaty unless three-quarters of the adult male population of the reservation agreed otherwise. But when South Dakota settlers set their eyes on the lands west of the Missouri River and the gold of the Black Hills, the government quickly caved and broke the terms of the treaty. New agreements, formed with individuals (and not the whole of the Oceti Sakowin), resulted in the tearing up of the Great Sioux Reservation into vast swaths of white-colonized land, with a spare few reserves scattered throughout. 

Today, these reservations, including Standing Rock, Rosebud, and Pine Ridge, are counted among the poorest and least developed communities in North America. In the 1980 case United States versus Sioux Nation of Indians, the United States Supreme Court voted 8-1, finding the breaking of Fort Laramie and the seizure of the Black Hills illegal, and ordered the government to pay Oceti Sakowin leaders fair compensation for the land. If Indigenous leaders chose to accept this payout, they’d be entitled to over a billion dollars sitting in a Bureau of Indian Affairs account, but they’d also be surrendering their claim to the land. To date, the Oceti Sakowin have found such a compromise unfathomable. 

This dramatic example illustrates the broad pattern of Indigenous-American relations. Treaties have formed the backbone of Indigenous rights and American obligations for generations. Those treaties have consistently been unilaterally broken by the government, and tribal governments have continued to assert their legal rights and privileges on the basis of these still legally-binding treaties. The same is true in Canada, where Indian Agents promised that the benefits of treaties regarding land use, access to healthcare, and safe drinking water would last “as long as the sun shall shine and the rivers flow.”  Today, Indigenous nations are fighting for their treaty rights in cases like the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests outside Standing Rock, the right of the Makah people of Washington to engage in limited whaling in Neah Bay, and the preservation of traditional hunting lands near Fort McKay, Alberta, where the Canadian government is engaged in the active exploitation of the Athabascan Oil Sands. In all of these cases, explicit legally binding treaty language is being directly contravened by the governments in question. The government, in other words, is breaking the law. 

These cases should be concerning to all Americans and Canadians concerned with the preservation of rule of law and the prevention of government overreach. They ought be all the more concerning to Christians invested with the responsibility and authority to shape policy and govern as citizens and voters. In Romans 13, Paul instructs Christians to submit to the governing authority, but he also provides a vision for what government ought to do – a fact surely not lost on those readers who belonged to Caesar’s house and wielded significant political and legal influence. Authorities are called “God’s servant for your good,” and “agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Unfortunately, throughout American history until today, the government has been a terror to those asserting their rights and a servant to the wrongdoer. This upside-down approach to godly governing is not just misguided – it is sinful. 

Throughout the Bible, God warns his people against making promises. The foolish vow of Jephthah results in the killing of his own daughter. Oaths that invoke the name of God are decried as hubristic abuses of the Lord’s authority. Jesus warns that promises should not be made by the hair on our heads, the heavens above, or the earth below, because we cannot control these things and we will inevitably fail in upholding them. This is the warning implicit in Ecclesiastes 5 above: God takes vows seriously. He is the promise-keeper, and demands His people keep their promises as well. So when a promise is made, it is expected to be upheld. When a promise is broken, the liar risks the wrath of God. 

For 19 years, Americans have commererated November as Native American Heritage Month. In the coming weeks, the parable of Thanksgiving will be retold and celebrated. For most Americans, the narrative is straightforward. Native Americans welcomed starving colonists into their land and home, providing food and shelter and a joyous meal. For Indigenous people, the narrative is more complicated. We remember the promises kept by the native nations of North America, the assistance provided, and the pathways opened. We remember the promises of cooperation and cohabitation made by the settlers, colonists, kings, queens, presidents, senators, and generals. And we remember the ways those promises were broken and continue to break. But most of all, we remember our obligation to fight for the fulfillment of vows, the admonition  that vows be kept, and the responsibility of anyone with governing authority to do what the proverbs demand: “to speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor.”

William McKay

William McKay, MPH, MSW is a Métis public health researcher and writer, with degrees from Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland. William has published for RELEVANT, Christ and Pop Culture, Uneven Earth, and the Intersection Project. His writing has also appeared in the Indigenous created, designed, and written video game When Rivers Were Trails. He is a member of Restoration Church in Washington, DC, where he lives with his wife, Megan.

2 thoughts on “Pay What You Vow: The Un-kept Promise of Indigenous American Treaties

  • November 7, 2019 at 6:53 am

    Life changes. Situations change. People groups are conquered. Get over it and accept the new reality. But this idea that great-great-great-great grandchildren are going to rectify the sins of their predecessors is naive.

    I’m not inclined to continue to give billions upon billions of dollars to tribes. Nor to honor ancient promises made that have no relevancy in the modern age. If you want to live on the remaining reservations then do so. Figure out a way to make it work. Otherwise, join the rest of society.

    My great-grandparents had to leave their villages in the old world and lose tribal and familial binds. I don’t know some of my cousins. That’s life. Get over it.

    • November 7, 2019 at 8:33 am

      This comment illustrates a very common misconception – that the consequences of broken treaties are ancient, or somehow deep in the past. There’s some truth to that – there have been crimes against Indigenous people going back before the founding of our countries. But the wounds are also fresh. As I mentioned in the article, there are still ongoing legal injustices. There are laws on the books right now that aren’t being followed. I’d hope it’s not naive to insist the government follows its own laws, and I’d hope that we don’t stop follow laws just because they were written a long time ago. After all, just about every treaty we’re talking about is younger than the constitution.

      Whether an Indigenous person lives on or off the reservation, they’re affected by the government’s willingness or failure to obey the law and keep it’s word. It seems strange to me to think that we can’t expect citizens – particularly Christian citizens – to advocate for a better obedience.


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