Treaties and North American Tribes

The story of westward expansion by European Americans is a basic theme of the American experience, but it is also a history of Indian removal from their traditional lands. Indians lost their lands through by purchase, war, disease and even extermination, but many transfers of Indian land were formalized by treaty. The Constitution of 1789 empowered Congress to “regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes. Federal policy regarded each tribe as a sovereign entity capable of signing binding treaties with the United States government. In the first 40 years of the new republic, the United States signed multiple treaties with Indian tribes which usually followed a basic pattern: the signatory tribe withdrew to a prescribed reservation and in return the Federal Government promised to provide supplies, food, and often an annuity.

The United States government’s inability and unwillingness to abide by its treaty obligations with Indian tribes was clearly related to an insatiable demand for cheap land for European settlers. To make matter more difficult, Indians generally had a different concept of land ownership than Europeans, emphasizing land use for hunting, farming, or dwelling for the tribe, but not recognizing the concept of individual ownership. Indian society was loose, decentralized, democratic, and non-authoritarian where “chiefs” were often men of respect and informal authority, but not designated by the tribe to make decisions. The result was that treaties were often signed with Indian leaders who did not have the authority of the tribe. Whether the system of Indian treaties were ever meant to work is a matter of debate, but in reality, most Indian treaties were broken.

Treaties and the North Fork Rancheria

The arrival of non-Natives in the San Joaquin Valley, as early as the 1810s, thoroughly disrupted aboriginal life there, as these incursions pushed Native peoples further into the foothills and mountains, in order to flee from the kidnapping, violence, and disease which decimated their populations. With the 1849 California Gold Rush, tensions between Native peoples and miners as well as settlers escalated rapidly in the San Joaquin Valley, and culminated in the Mariposa Indian War of 1850-51. In response the federal government sent three treaty commissioners to California to negotiate treaties with San Joaquin and other Native peoples for peace and the cession of land in exchange for the establishment of reservations.

The interests of the North Fork Mono were represented directly in the ensuing treaty negotiations by trusted chiefs of neighboring Mono and non-Mono tribes with whom they had kinship and socio-political ties. The April 29, 1851, treaty expressly provided that the ancestors of the Tribe were intended beneficiaries of the treaty. This and two other treaties reserved adjacent tracts of Native lands on the Valley floor where the present-day City of Madera is located. The lands reserved in these treaties were quickly overrun by settlers, ranchers, miners and, later, farmers, leaving only a series of small “Indian farms” operating over a large area. One of these, the Fresno River Farm, was located in the immediate vicinity of the present-day City of Madera and later became the headquarters for the entire reservation. Although Congress eventually refused to ratify the treaties based on objections from the California Legislature, by 1854 the Fresno River Farm or Reservation was viewed as one of the five reservations authorized by Congress a year earlier. In 1856, the Indian Agent for the Fresno River Reservation identified a significant number of ancestors of the Tribe who lived on, visited, and recognized the Reservation as their home and headquarters. At the same time, most Native people, including ancestors of the Tribe, integrated the Reservation into their yearly subsistence cycle, spending part of the year on reservation lands cultivating crops and collecting treaty-stipulated goods, and part of the year off reservation grounds hunting, gathering, and fishing. Operation of the Reservation was plagued with problems, however, and in 1860 the Reservation was closed. The Tribe’s ancestors subsequently integrated into the mining, lumber, ranching, and agricultural economies, thereby adapting their use and occupancy of the Valley floor and foothills to supply their subsistence in new ways.

In 1961, the federal government terminated the Tribe’s federally recognized status and transferred the Rancheria land to fee for the lone resident then living on the Rancheria. The Tribe’s status as a federally recognized Indian tribe was restored in 1983 under a court-approved settlement. Four years later, the lands within the Rancheria boundaries were restored as “Indian Country.”