Exhibit highlights effects of 250-year-old documents on Minnesotans

"Why Treaties Matter," a traveling exhibit, will be at Walter Library until Oct. 14.

Cleo Krejci

An exhibit explaining the importance of treaties between Native peoples and the U.S. government has traveled the state for the past seven years, finally making its way to the University of Minnesota last month.

Though the U.S. government stopped creating treaties over 250 years ago, those treaties still determine the rights of Native peoples and where they can operate as a self-governed nation.

The “Why Treaties Matter” exhibit, which launched at the University Sept. 19, brought 20 panels and a video to the Great Hall of Walter Library explaining why the treaties made between Native nations and the then newly-colonized United States still matter.

The land that the University of Minnesota sits on, though legally owned by the State of Minnesota as a result of these treaties, is still claimed by the Dakota nation.

“Because of continued Dakota presence, [many] Dakotas continue to insist — and rightly so — that they remain the spiritual caretakers of this land,” said David Wilkins, Professor of American Indian Studies at the University.

The United States ceased treaty-making with Native peoples in the 1870s, saying that any treaties already in place would remain the law of the land, Wilkins said. 

“That’s proven to be a very important law and very important statement, because had that not been the case, I don’t think [Native peoples] would have any land left in this country,” said Wilkins, who is a Native author.

The exhibit, created by the Minnesota Humanities Center, the National Museum of the American Indian and the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, is at Walter Library from Sept. 19 to Oct. 14, having reached more than 80,000 people since its completion in 2010.

Organizers said it was important that the exhibit explores the importance of treaties today. 

“It’s not a 200-year-old story,” said Casey DeMarais, director of programs at the Minnesota Humanities Center.

Despite their history, treaties traditionally have not been taught in school systems, said Dennis Olson Jr., executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council.

“We want [people] to have the knowledge of this story that really hadn’t been told well historically,” Olson said. “It hasn’t been a part of anyone’s educational experience until recently.”

Organizers said educating younger generations was a focus of the exhibit. 

“They wanted the educational experience for Native students and all students to change,” DeMarais said. 

Many students said they do not remember spending much time, if any, learning about treaties when they were younger. 

Amelious Whyte Jr., director of public engagement for the College of Liberal Arts, helped bring the exhibit to the University.

Whyte said it made sense for the University to host the exhibit, as it has one of the oldest American Indian studies departments in the country. 

Ellen Weiler, a student who works at Walter Library, said she has seen handfuls of people stop to interact with the exhibit through the day. 

The exhibit has a permanent home in the newly renovated Minnesota State Capitol, DeMarais said. 

An online portion of the exhibit is being developed for classroom use, said DeMarais, after recent funding ensured two years of future support.