Old People Native Americans and Those Non-Indian-American Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Old People

Native Americans and those non-Indian-American settlers have very different traditions for recording history. The Native Americans live in an oral culture that records history and important information in language. This is common in societies that lack the written language. For many with the written language, it is difficult to relate to the accuracy of cultures that use an oral tradition to record knowledge. The record of written language dates back many of thousands of years and have been embedded in a cultural conscience. If you have grown up in a culture in which writes down its important information, it can be hard for you to fully appreciate other traditions.

I think the primary thesis can this argument can be related to some of the same kind of trends that are occurring today as communication mediums evolve. As email has replaced written letters in mainstream culture, the appreciation for written letters has declined. As text messaging has replaced many phone calls that are being made by individuals, this changes the way things are being communicated and the languages used in those communication mediums. There can be a similar trend that occurs with oral traditions and the cultures that record important pieces of information by the written word.

If the only way to share knowledge is through oral language, then the brain automatically makes provisions and puts more importance on storing this information. However, if you know that the important information would be recorded in written language then there is not the same incentive to make sure you can recall it from memory. Thus the accuracy of the oral tradition is difficult for cultures that have written language to fully appreciate the subtleties and the accuracy that they can produce.

The Yakama Nation is ideal for analysis because its 1855 treaty (ratified in 1859) has generated so much controversy and many records; these records include original council proceedings, minutes of later meetings between tribal leaders and government officials, and court testimony of Indian defendants and witnesses[footnoteRef:1]. Since there is both a written record and a record that was passed through a network with an oral tradition, these two different sources can be compared to provide insights into the way information is stored and maintained by these different cultures. [1: (Fisher, 1999, p. 4)]

The 1855 Treaty

The Pacific Northwest reflected the expansionist and assimilationist ambitions of the United States. In 1854 and 1855 a young governor named Isaac I. Stevens visited a number of Indian tribes in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana and signed ten separate treaties with ten different Indian groups. The idea he proposed was to fund certain goods and services to help the Indian become "civilized" and eventually assimilate into the mainstream American culture[footnoteRef:2]. [2: (Fisher, 1999, p. 5)]

The United States federal government agreed to provide schools, mills, agricultural technologies, blacksmiths, and the other advancements that he believed would be necessary for the Indians to become civilized for a twenty year period. At the end of this period it was believed that the Indians would be completely self-sufficient and would no longer require the aid given to them by the treaty[footnoteRef:3]. This perspective drove much of the negotiations. Stevens understood that the Yakamas would not give up certain provisions such as to hunt, gather, and fish on local lands. However he believed that whatever provisions were made would only be temporary as the Indians integrated into American society. [3: (Fisher, 1999, p. 5)]

The negotiations and terms of this treat were incredibly difficult to communicate because of the language and cultural barriers. Not only was it difficult to present concepts that originated in English to the Indian tribes, but there were also three different languages used by the fourteen tribes represented by their leaders at the negotiations. The Yakamas were a diverse group and the negotiations dragged on for nearly two weeks and involved some 5,000 Indians froma cross the Columbia Plateau[footnoteRef:4]. [4: (Fisher, 1999, p. 6)]

Stevens wanted only two reservations east of the Cascades but had to make concessions to the Indians to provide more including separate reservations for the Walla Wallas, Cayuses, and Umatillas. Despite the fact that many of the Indians in the region lacked any representation at the negotiations, the treaty was eventually drafted by the fourteen leaders who were present.

Many of the Yakama did not have representation at these meetings and had to rely on the leaders who were present to gain information about the terms of the arrangement. Thus the terms of the treaty spread through the traditional oral network in the Yakama tribes that passed from the leaders who were present to the rest of the interested parties. The terms of the deal were presented with the assistance of an interpreter and then again through Indians who had to translate these details again for different Indian language groups that were present. Thus even the leaders that were present only had a limited understanding of the actual agreement that Stevens had proposed.

These limitations produced many misunderstandings about the terms of the treaty that were understood by the Yakamas. For example, one provision in the territorial boundaries stated that the reservation would pass "south and east" of the Mount Adams while the Yakamas did not fully appreciate the differences between south and south-east which cost them over one hundred twenty thousand acres compared to the amount of land that they were expecting to control in the reservation[footnoteRef:5]. Other misunderstanding and miscommunications were also present in the terms. [5: (Fisher, 1999, p. 8)]

Another example would be the use of the concepts of "right" and "privilege." There are subtle differences in these concepts in the legal tradition. If the Indians were meant to have the "right" to fish, hunt, and gather berries it would entitled them to a sense of greater ownership while the "privilege" only gave them a set of more limited rights to the lands. However, concepts such as these were not easily translated and therefore there was vagueness in the details of the treaty in which both parties understood the terms differently.


"They all say, after they had talked to Gov. Stevens for over twenty days, Gov. Stevens told them, "I want to talk to my advisors." In a few days we went to call a council together again. At that time those words were spoken by Governor Stevens. The Yakimas, Umatillas and Nez Perce were there. That was in 1908 or 1909 when I first heard the old chiefs say that Governor Stevens said "as long as the river flows and as the sun rises from the East, and as long as the white mountains shall stand, you shall have your fish, your game, your game birds, and your roots and berries[footnoteRef:6]." [6: (Fisher, 1999, pp. 8-9)]

Most of the disputes that have later arisen from the original treaty deal with the rights and duration of those rights that the Indian tribes believed that they were agreeing upon. Although there was no written proof of the before mentioned quote by Governor Stevens, there was a strong oral tradition that corroborates what Stevens said to the tribe's leadership. The Yakamas firmly believed that the words had been spoken even if they were not recorded on paper. However, the lack of written proof made it difficult for the reservations to verify their claims in the modern court system that is based on documentation.

The references to the Indian claims do appear in documented conversations with the tribe's leaders as far back as 1893; however they do not appear in the original documentation of the treaty terms. Thus this has left courts to debate the role of the oral language as evidence in various aspects of the treaty. At the time of the treaty it seems that Steven's intended to make subsistence activities from the Indians' permissible. However, after the Indians' subsistence was no longer dependent upon these activities the cases centered on whether they had the privilege or the right to the disputed areas.

The terms of the agreement were an important part of the Indian tribes and they preserved the oral tradition in a number of ways. Yakama women shared this deep concern for treaty rights, and their skill as storytellers helped preserve oral traditions associated with the agreement and elderly women in particular played an important role in educating their grandchildren about stories about their tribal history[footnoteRef:7] [7: (Fisher, 1999, p. 13)]


This story deals with an interesting case of an oral tradition that can be compared against a written record. The passage of a treaty that restricted much of their activities to a designated tribal area was of significant and unprecedented importance to the various tribes involved. Given the importance of the deal, it is likely that the oral passing of this information was given a high priority in their culture and in their stories. It is likely that this story represents a piece of their oral tradition that was…

Sources Used in Document:

Works Cited

Fisher, A. (1999). 'This I Know from the Old People': Yakama Indian Treaty Rights as Oral Tradition. The Magazine of Western History, 2-17.

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