Digital Project: Temporal Treaties

temporal treaties: A Comparative Analysis of American Indian Treaties, 1778-1831 and 1832-1871.

To highlight some of the things I have learned during the first semester of my Digital Public Humanities class, this page is dedicated to my final project for the fall 2019 semester. This project is not meant to be a production of original research, but rather a presentation of a novel perspective regarding something of interest to myself and to demonstrate the applicability of digital tools to see things from new angles.

For this project, I have chosen to do a comparative analysis of treaties between American Indian Tribes and the United States government. Using Voyant Tools to conduct this project, my purpose in doing this is to see if there are identifiable trends in the language of the treaties that correspond to historical political and legal changes in the relationship between Tribes and the United States, with the goal of observing how said changes have impacted the political perspective of Tribes as viewed by the United States government. Before getting into the project itself, I feel that some background information is necessary.

Native Nations – Inherent Sovereignty

Long before Europeans arrived to the Americas, Indigenous Peoples of the continents had long established their civilizations among the lands. The people who are now known as “American Indians” operated as nations in their own sense and exercised sovereignty over our territories. As I explain in this post on /r/AskHistorians, this concept of “sovereignty” had been understood and practiced by my people and the other Indigenous groups of the Americas.

As such, American Indians regularly entered into formal negotiations with Europeans and later, Americans. Much like with any other sovereign nation, official treaties were formed between many of the Native Nations of North America and the United States federal government in recognition of both the power and sovereign status of Indigenous Peoples. Vine Deloria, Jr. and David Wilkins help confirm this for us:

Since the English had been substantially dependent upon the Indians, particularly the Iroquois Confederacy, in defeating the French, they wisely recognized the national status of the major Indian tribes of the interior and generally forbade their colonies from dealing with the Indian tribes on any consistent or substantial basis.¹

After the American Revolution, this recognition would also be identified by the federal government of the United States and enshrined in Section 8, paragraph 3 of the Constitution, authorizing Congress “to regulate Commerce” with “the Indian Tribes.” As Deloria and Wilkins continue, the Constitution reflects “the situation that confronted the United States at the time [the Constitution was] written.” This meant that Tribes acted outside the purview of the United States, clearly demonstrating an existing sovereignty as that of other nations.²

Thus, the relationship between Tribes and the federal government developed as such. Tribes today have inherited this sovereign status that was practiced in a fuller sense in times past and have fought to protect our rights associated with this sovereignty. One of the primary ways of doing so has been through the reserving of said rights via treaties.

Why Treaties

Though Tribes maintain our inherent sovereignty to this day and continue to exist as our own nations, it is obvious that we no longer act with as much freedom as we once had, putting us into a role of what some might call “limited” sovereignty. While the first treaties formed with Tribes are highly indicative of the perceived sovereign status held by Tribes like that of other nations, later treaties seem to demonstrate shifts in this perception, fundamentally altering the relationship between Tribes and the United States, as well as the developing policy agendas of the federal government regarding the handling of American Indian Tribes.

As the United States continued to expand westward and Tribes gradually began to be subjugated by the overwhelming military power of the United States, as well as the ever-changing geopolitics of the Americas, the United States altered its political perception of Tribes, ultimately resulting in the ending of the treaty-making process with Tribes in 1871. Yet, previously signed treaties that were still active by 1871 were not considered abrogated, therefore remaining as the foundation for the continued government-to-government relationship Tribes have with the federal government.

These changes can be tracked, I believe, through trends contained in the language of the treaties. And by identifying key points in history, we can refine an investigation into the analysis of these treaties.

Project Parameters

As mentioned, I will be using Voyant Tools for my analysis. In order to procure my corpus for this project, I am utilizing digitized treaties and accompanying transcriptions made available by the Oklahoma State University Library. It is from this digital project that I have been able to do the work I am displaying here.

To develop my corpora, I set a 50,000 word minimum for each set and then added additional treaties to get to my set years of observation.

I have developed two corpus groups of treaties to compare. The first is Group A. This group consists of select recorded treaties beginning in 1788 and going through 1830. This group has 66,455 words in the corpus, spread across 70 documents. This group contains a consecutive order of treaties from 1788 through 1815, but then switches to one treaty from every subsequent year through 1830. I did this because there were several transcriptions of treaties missing going into 1816. By that year, I had reached my 50,000 word minimum and decided to do one treaty per year to cut down on time and effort, assuming that I would still get an accurate look of treaties for the remaining time span.

The second corpus is Group B. This group consists of select recorded treaties beginning on October 22, 1832 and going through 1859. This group has 66,484 words in the corpus, spread across 45 documents. This group contains a consecutive order of treaties from October 22, 1832 through the entirety of 1833, but then switches to one to two treaties from each subsequent year from 1834 through 1859.

Though I had originally split the two groups between the before and after period of the year 1831 (rather than starting Group B near the end of 1832), project needs required me to alter the time frames of the two groups (check out this blog post for more about this change). However, 1831 is still the primary demarcation for the separation of these two groups. In 1831, the Supreme Court case of Cherokee Nation v. Georgia concluded, resulting a drastic change in how the federal government approached the relationship with American Indian Tribes. In this case, it was ruled that the Cherokee Nation, along with other Tribes, were considered “domestic dependent nations” who are as a “ward to its Guardian,” that being the United States. Though Tribes maintained sovereign status, this was now seen to be encapsulated by a plenary rule of the federal government, specifically under Congress.

As such, I think the year of 1831 serves as a good temporal marker to see if treaties began to reflect this change to the political gaze of the federal government when looking upon Tribes.

Another thing to note is that for this project, I removed the text of signatories for the treaties. My goal is to primarily look at the content of the treaties to see how the main language of the negotiated terms changed over time. While it could be interesting to see trends among the signatories, I opted to remove them to reduce clutter in the corpus, time spent on correcting any transcription errors, and to yield better results for what I was wanting to observe.

Project Analysis – Group A

When examining Group A, there are some very notable patterns in the words that we can see right off the bat. For example, this word cloud is comprised of the most frequently used words throughout the corpus, with the larger words indicating a higher usage among the documents.

When looking at this cloud in the Cirrus tool, I picked out words that I felt had a particular political or economic connotation. The words I chose were:

  • Nations (184 uses)
  • Nation (438 uses)
  • Indians (252 uses)
  • Indian (170 uses)
  • Land (154 uses)
  • Lands (160 uses)
  • Boundary (132 uses)
  • Tribes (207 uses)
  • Tribe (157 uses)
  • President (157 uses)
  • Dollars (197 uses)
  • Thousand (235 uses)
  • Reservation (48 uses – picked out from “Terms” as it was not listed by Cirrus)

Using the “Terms” tool in the same window as Cirrus, I was able to search for other words to give more context to the usage of these words.

(Note: Some of the words in the Terms Graph are combined to reflect different iterations of key words.)

The graph indicates the amount of times a word was used, but it also shows the frequency with which they appear in the documents. Looking at the term “nation,” it not only has high amount of individual mentions, but it also has a high frequency throughout the corpus. This is a bit more apparent when using the Trends tool, where many individual documents reflect a high frequency of use:

The high use across individual documents is likely because many of the treaties were not made simply with one Tribe, but often different Tribes and groups. So one document would see reference to multiple Native Nations.

Project Analysis – Group B

When examining Group B, I used the same set of words for both my word count and frequency usage in the corpus.  This is the word cloud for this group:

Again, picking out the same words, we get the following:

  • Nations (70 uses – picked out from “Terms” as it was not listed by Cirrus)
  • Nation (238 uses)
  • Indians (441 uses)
  • Indian (102 uses)
  • Land (235 uses)
  • Lands (176 uses)
  • Boundary (94 uses – picked out from “Terms” as it was not listed by Cirrus)
  • Tribes (144 uses)
  • Tribe (217 uses)
  • President (173 uses)
  • Dollars (356 uses)
  • Thousand (344 uses)
  • Reservation (76 uses)

Already we can see some notable differences. However, I’ll save the commentary of the comparison for a bit later.

The “Terms” section again gives us more insight on the specific word use. This also uses the same set of words as in the previous “Terms” window.

(Note: Some of the words in the Terms Graph are combined to reflect different iterations of key words. Also, this one has an extra entry for “reservation,” but it doesn’t affect the results.)

The “Terms” window shows us that the use for “nation” has been cut essentially in half and now “Indians” is the top term. Pulling this up with the “Trends” graph, however, has some really startlingly results:

Here, we can see a decline in the frequency of “nation” across the second corpus. It starts at a very high frequency near the beginning, closer to the time frame of the previous corpus, but then steadily drops off as we progress toward 1859. And because this second group extends further into the future, I think it is really indicative of ultimate termination of the treaty-making process with Tribes.

Project Analysis – Comparison

Here, I’d like to look more specifically at the progression of terms and offer my thoughts as to why we see such changes in terminology and frequency of use.

1. Nation

As is pretty clear from the graphs, this word has a turbulent history among the text of the treaties. It was used a total of 438 times in Group A, but was cut down to 238 uses in Group B, almost half as many times. I think this stark difference can be attributed to several things. First, Group A depicts the nature of the relationship Tribes had with the United States, particularly in the context of the birth of the United States as a new and fledgling nation. Stephen Pevar explains:

In the years immediately following the Revolutionary War, the U.S. government tried to maintain good relations with the Indian tribes … The United States, weakened after years of war with England, needed to avoid further hostilities. “The Indian nations were militarily powerful and still a threat to the young United States,” and therefore negotiated with the federal government “from a position of strength.”³

Hence, the United States would have been hesitant to view Tribes as anything less than equal nations capable of exercising their sovereignty, mainly in the form of defense of their respective territories. It wouldn’t be until the Removal Era, beginning around 1830 under the presidency of Andrew Jackson, that Tribes would start to lose this advantage (which, consequently, is around the same time as the 1831 division in the analysis).

Second, the United States largely inherited the existing political framework and geopolitical relations of Great Britain after the Revolutionary War in terms of Indian Policy. The Crown had previously blocked any attempts by the colonies to enter into negotiations with Tribes before the Revolutionary War. Now, the United States was left with the existing policies to manage relations outside of the ones they had formed with ally Tries during the war. It was normalized at this point to view the Tribes as sovereign nations, for that is how they were negotiated with for many years prior.

Come 1831, the United States is now in a stronger position from the previous 30 years and completely shifts its interpretation of the positionality of Tribes. Through attempts to resolve their own internal disputes, the Supreme Court altered the political perception of Tribes to be a in a more subjugated role. And with the rise of Manifest Destiny, this role proved to fit in the legal framework constructed by the court. So while the first few years of the 1830s continues to see the use of “nation,” primarily due to treaties formed with the so called “Five Civilized Tribes,” the term starts to see a rapid decline as the United States finds it useful to deligitmize Native Nations.

As the United States began to turn westward for expansion, this deligitimizing also worked to prevent foreign nations from getting involved. Exercising colonial dominance over the Indigenous Peoples, as was happening elsewhere in the world, meant that wars and conflicts were treated as internal affairs, limiting the scope of the applicability of “nation” for Tribes who were now being cemented as truly “dependent.” This likely also mirrors a shift into the legislative process for Tribes. As treaty-making ended in 1871, the primary way to negotiate with Tribes now took the form of Congressional legislation and Executive Orders. Hence, the use of “nation” would be reserved for use in those documents as opposed to treaties, which would have forced the United States to continue enduring stricter obligations.

2. Land/Lands and Dollars

Almost as if it were a prime directive, the United States has always been concerned with expansion and the gaining of “surplus” lands from Indigenous Peoples. Group A reflects the early lower ambitions of the federal government, where “land” and “lands” were only mentioned a combined total of 314 times. These earlier treaties were mainly focused on securing friendly relations and trade with Tribes, as well as solving smaller conflicts and establishing existing boundaries. While some were for land cessions, these treaties were negotiated from more equal positions in the power dynamic.

Compare this to the combined total of “land/lands” mentions in Group B, which comes out to 411. As the United States continued to expand, conquer, and negotiate with Tribes, land cessions became more and more common. With the lack of a unified front and the plenary discretion of Congress over Tribes that they considered under their legal jurisdiction, Tribes faced a rapid loss of lands. The treaties would actually serve as the foundation for even more land loss, but through legislation as opposed to formal treaties. The creation of reservations, a primary stipulation in many land cession treaties and evident in its increased used going into Group B, would be tied into the future General Allotment Act of 1887 that would see all surplus land within reservations be sold off to non-Indians. And with the encroachment of settlers all throughout this period, it land discussion became the utmost concern for the United States, whether it was to secure said land for settlement or for safe passage through the frontier.

Of course, facilitating these land transfers needed another important word: dollars. The usage of this word jumped from 197 in Group A to 356 in Group B. Contrary to popular belief, many of the treaties signed between Tribes and the federal government were not about conflicts. Rather, most were about trade and land. If the United States could “buy” the land, they opted for this this route rather than straight conflict. Furthermore, many annuities were paid out as part of negotiations. As westward expansion increased, so did the dollar amount to mitigate conflict, resolve disputes, and purchase land under the guise of a good deal.4

3. Sovereignty

The term “sovereignty” was one that I wanted to give specific attention to as it is now a key term in modern discourse about the political status of Indigenous Peoples. However, the text analysis does yield some rather interesting results.

The term “sovereignty,” or “sovereignty” is mentioned virtually zero times in Group B, but in Group A, it seems a slightly notable use:

The term “sovereignty” and/or “sovereignty” was only used in reference to the United States itself or other European nations, not with regards to Tribes. This isn’t all too surprising, though, and I don’t believe it hampers earlier discussions regarding the perceived nationhood of Tribes. Francis Paul Prucha reinforces this point, but does add an important caveat that might shed light on this situation:

The United States government thus treated with Indian tribes with the same legal procedures used for foreign nations, a practice that acknowledged some kind of autonomous nationhood of the Indian tribes … Although Indian treaties and those with foreign nations had a legal similarity, it would be a mistake to push the sameness too far. In fact, the Indian groups were not like foreign nations, and the negotiations with them often differed markedly from those with England or France. The Indian tribes, either willingly or because forced to do so, acknowledged in the very treaties themselves a degree of dependence upon the United States and a consequent diminution of sovereignty.5

While I don’t necessarily agree with Prucha’s assessment regarding the “differed” negotiations, this statement helps us to see how the United States was likely interpreting the negotiations. The Doctrine of Discovery was already in effect, being articulated for the United States in 1823 by Chief Justice John Marshall, so Indian Title to land was already considered extinguished by virtue of the transition of lands from Great Britain to the United States. Therefore, it doesn’t seem like a far cry to argue that while the United States dealt with Tribes in like manner of dealing with foreign European governments, they precluded themselves from acknowledging the full status of Tribes based on their own understanding.

As the subjugation and oppression of Tribes increased with said expansion, it becomes more apparent as to why later treaties lacked nearly any mention of “sovereign” or “sovereignty,” even with reference to the United States. It would have already been assumed that the United States was expressing their sovereignty, particularly in a plenary manner over Tribes.


As seems to be evident by my analysis, there is definitely identifiable trends in the language that can be used to inform political understanding. What’s more is that this can be used to not only help out now, but to paint pictures for different time periods and regions. Seeing the trends visualized gives us a jumping off point to investigate further into how portions of the treaties developed. For example, the third comparison for the word “sovereign/sovereignty.” That was done purely on a whim and it yielded some interesting points of research to follow up on, such as learning how the parties involved in the treaties were interpreting this concept and what were the roots of their perspectives.

Voyant Tools is an incredible software that is able to uncover new areas for research and I endorse its use for future digital project. There are other tools available beyond the five that are presented in the main window and these could probably be applied to this project or future projects to yield even more interesting facets of the same corpora.

Future prospects for this project include expanding its scope to include more treaties overall for a purely content-based analysis, specified treaties for time periods, and specific treaties for regions. As mentioned previously, I excluded the signatories to the treaties for this project. It could be interesting, however, to examine patterns for who signed what treaties, as suggested by one of my classmates. This is also something that could move beyond treaties and include comparisons of legislation after the 1871 cut off for treaty-making with Tribes.


1. Deloria Jr, Vine, and David E. Wilkins. Tribes, treaties, and constitutional tribulations (University of Texas Press, 1999), 5.

2. lbid, 26.

3. Pevar, Stephen. The rights of Indians and Tribes (4th ed., Oxford University Press, 2012), 6.

4. Deloria Jr, Vine. Custer died for your sins: An Indian manifesto (University of Oklahoma Press, 1969).

5. Prucha, Francis Paul. The great father: The United States government and the American Indians (University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 57-58.