This year is most certainly one that history will record as a time of unrest and uncertainty and strife for many—but borne from this time, and the legacy left by the wildfires, the coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter protests is perhaps a small sliver of light, borne, as we see it, out of the present moment's focus on righting old wrongs.
One example of this focus we see nationwide is addressing institutionalized problems like the Washington Redskins football brand or removing Confederate statues. Here in Central Oregon, the people of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs are marking yet another righting-of-wrong in the making. Last week, the U.S Congress voted unanimously to nullify an 1865 treaty, sometimes referred to as the Huntington Treaty, that barred people living on the reservation from leaving it to hunt or fish or gather food. The 1865 treaty followed an earlier treaty, signed in 1855, that established the Warm Springs Reservation.
As they witnessed the tide of European settlers flooding to Oregon—which would become a formal state just a few years later—tribal leaders agreed to the initial treaty because it retained some land for their own, and also retained their rights to leave the reservation as they saw fit. Today, the tribes have dozens of fishing access sites on the Columbia River that are tied to the first treaty. But as a people whose livelihood depended on hunting, fishing and gathering, the second treaty was an enormous blow.
In 1886, Warm Springs Indian agent Jason Wheeler wrote to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., stating, "If ever a fraud was villainously perpetrated on any set of people, red or white, this was, in my opinion, certainly one of the most glaring."
The nullification of the 1865 treaty requires just one additional step to formally right this wrong: It must now be signed by President Trump.
"There's been great difficulty in the onerous process of getting it through the Senate and the House," Louie Pitt, director of governmental affairs for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, told the Source. "A lot of education has to happen to get that done. Twenty-two states don't have Indians, so they don't care one way or the other, and a lot of folks are neutral. We're happy that it got this far. Now it's just a matter of one more signature."
When people talk about U.S. history, many will talk about it as if "the past is the past," assigning some protracted view that separates and exonerates people presently living from any liability or responsibility for what came before. This same thinking asks Black Americans to "get over" the legacy of slavery (and even Oregon's own Black exclusion law) as if some of the trauma has not been passed down, generation to generation.
While we—along with the people of Warm Springs—will hold our breath until the 1865 treaty is finally and fully nullified through a signature by the President, we do see that small sliver of light when things like this happen. The U.S. House and Senate voted unanimously in favor of the 1865 Treaty Nullification Act—meaning, as rarely occurs these days, Oregon's congressional delegation in Washington, D.C.—Republican and Democrat alike—all supported it. They saw the value in righting a very old wrong, even one that has not been enforced for decades.
In this case and many others, it would be easy for some of those in power to simply say. "It's no big deal," or "Get over it," and demand we look only into the future.
We may be only able to move forward, but in this time of upheaval and unrest, there is inherent value, too, in looking back and doing the right thing.