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What the 1865 Cheyenne Arapaho Treaty Represents About the United States’ Broken Promises to Native Americans

The important document is now on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

“On the banks of the Arkansas River, 158 years ago, the southern Cheyenne and Arapaho people were made promises of Sand Creek Massacre reparations in 1865 by the treaty of Little Arkansas. The United States government has not fulfilled its obligations of this treaty. We were removed from the land in the previous treaty and moved to present day Oklahoma. The words of our grandparents and great grandparents forever remain in our conscious. We must never forget their ideas of who we are and why we are here. We continue to this day to make the government remember to be accountable for its promises made to our people.” – Cheyenne and Arapaho Governor Reggie Wassana 

On October 14, 1865, famous figures known to western enthusiasts and historians gathered on the Little Arkansas River, in the state of Kansas, to negotiate a historic treaty that would forever change the lives of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people. Several representatives and commissioners represented the United States. Among them Kit Carson, William W. Bent (in collaboration with his brother Charles who Bent’s Fort in Colorado was named after) and Jesse H. Leavenworth (his father Henry was the namesake of the Leavenworth Penitentiary.) Representing the Cheyenne and Arapaho were Cheyenne Head Chief Black Kettle (Moke-ta-ve-to) and Arapaho Head Chief Little Raven (Oh-has-tee) and other chiefs.

This treaty was negotiated 11 months after the Sand Creek Massacre that took place on November 29, 1864, a day that will live in infamy in the lives of modern Cheyenne and Arapaho people. At Sand Creek approximately 675 U.S. Army volunteers attacked a Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment while they flew the United States flag signaling, they were at peace. More than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women and children were murdered. In retaliation, the Cheyenne and Arapaho of other bands resumed raiding settlers who invaded their territory. To repress these uprisings, the U.S. sent commissioners and other official representatives to the Little Arkansas River, near present day Wichita, to negotiate a treaty with the Cheyenne and Arapaho to establish “perpetual peace.”

All the chiefs present led by Black Kettle and Little Raven condemned the soldiers and volunteers who had murdered and mutilated their people at Sand Creek. It is reported that a Cheyenne chief raised the United States flag visibly above his lodge while others in the village waved white flags. Ignoring the visible signs of peace, the signal was given to open fire with rifles and cannons. As the bodies of their victims lay lifeless on the ground the troops burned the village and mutilated the dead, carrying off body parts as trophies. Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle, who had raised a United States flag in peace, survived the massacre and carried his severely wounded wife from the massacre site and straggling east across the cold plains of winter. Smithsonian magazine told fuller details of the Sand Creek Massacre, which you can read here.

The first page of the 29-page handwritten Ratified Indian Treaty 341: Cheyenne and Arapaho – Little Arkansas River, Kansas, October 14, 1865. National Archives Photo #183517077

Expressing repentance, the United States government renounced the massacre at Sand Creek. To make restitution, a new Cheyenne and Arapaho Treaty was negotiated in 1865 that promised payments for 40 years, compensation for stolen and destroyed property, land grants for those who had lost loved ones, and a reservation on the border of Kansas and Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma). Signed in 1867, this treaty was filled with broken promises. Kansas refused to allow the reservation, reparations never materialized and perpetual peace was not achieved. In 1868, Chief Black Kettle was killed when Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer’s Seventh Cavalry attacked his peaceful camp on the Washita River. Today, descendants of the Sand Creek massacre victims remain hopeful that the United States will honor the treaty promises it made to their ancestors.

Since the exhibtion opened, the museum has put on display many of the treaties signed between the United States and Native Americans. The full list is below, along with when they were on view:

Sept. 2014–Feb. 2015  Treaty of Canandaigua, 1794
Mar. 2015–Aug. 2015  Muscogee Treaty, 1790
Sept. 2015–Feb. 2016  Horse Creek (Fort Laramie) Treaty, 1851
Mar. 2016–Aug. 2016  Treaty with the Potawatomi, 1836
Sept. 2016–Feb. 2017  Unratified California Treaty K, 1852
Mar. 2017–Aug. 2017  Medicine Creek Treaty, 1854
Sept. 2017–Jan. 2018  Treaty of Fort Wayne, 1809
Feb. 2018–Apr. 2018  Navajo Treaty, 1868
May 2018–Oct. 2018  Treaty with the Delawares, 1778
Nov. 2018–Mar. 2019  Fort Laramie Treaty, 1868
Apr. 2019–Sept. 2019  Treaty of New Echota, 1835
Oct. 2019–Mar. 2020  Treaty of Fort Stanwix, 1784
Oct. 2020–Mar. 2021  Treaty of Fort Jackson, 1814
Nov. 2021–May 2022  Treaty of Fort Harmar with the Six Nations, 1789
May 2022–Nov. 2022  Treaty with the Nez Perce, 1868
Nov. 2022–Apr. 2023  Prairie du Chien Treaty, 1829
May 2023–Oct. 2023 Treaty with Cheyenne and Arapaho, 1865

Source: Smithsonian Mag