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Thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, the formation of the United States, and construction of the White House, Native peoples such as the Piscataway and Nacostines lived and prospered in the region of what is now Washington, D.C. As more colonists descended upon the area, they seized lands from Native Americans—including the land between the Potomac River and Eastern Branch, which later became the capital of the United States. For over two centuries and during almost every presidential administration, Native American delegates visited the White House to advocate and preserve tribal sovereignty, oppose land cessions, negotiate wartime alliances, protect cultural rights and resources, and demand that the federal government adhere to the terms of its treaty agreements. The makings of Native American diplomacy and federal policy ultimately took shape at the White House, on land taken from Indigenous peoples.

Before the construction of the White House was completed, Native American delegations met with President George Washington and Vice President John Adams in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In December 1796, President Washington and Vice President Adams dined with the Cherokee war leader John Watts, noted by Adams as “the King of the Cherokees” who favored negotiation with federal officials, as well as “a large Number of his Chiefs and their Wives.” Joining them was the widow and children of Hanging Maw, a Cherokee war leader who took a more militant approach to federal government relations. Watts and the delegation met with Washington and Adams to demand that the federal government enforce the territorial boundaries established in the Treaty of Hopewell.1 Signed on November 28, 1785, the Treaty of Hopewell allowed for white Americans to expand westward, as the treaty ceded much of Cherokee lands along the French Broad and Holston Rivers, in much of present-day North and South Carolina, to the United States. The treaty was signed at Hopewell, on the Keowee River, in South Carolina, by headmen of the Cherokee Nation and Commissioners Plenipotentiary of the United States – Benjamin Hawkins, Andrew Pickens, Joseph Martin, and Lachlan McIntosh.2

Captain John Smith’s map of the Chesapeake Bay and Native American nations in the region of what is now Washington, D.C., 1606.

Library of Congress

The initial meetings between President Washington, Adams, and the Cherokee representatives established a longstanding tradition of Native American diplomacy that continued after the White House became the official presidential residence in 1800. At the outbreak of the War of 1812, many Native American nations allied with the British in order to preserve territorial sovereignty and prevent American settlers from invading their lands. In attempting to cease hostilities between Native Americans and the United States and to prevent Native American alliances with British forces, President Madison enlisted William Clark, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs at St. Louis, to gather a delegation of Native Americans to visit Washington, D.C., and to discuss conditions of the war at the White House.

President Madison is reported to have met with two separate delegations in the summer of 1812. The first delegation consisted of twenty-eight representatives of the Great and Little Osage, Fox, and Sauk peoples. The delegation’s journey to the White House lasted approximately two months, arriving on Saturday, August 1, 1812. A second delegation arrived in mid-August, consisting of Sioux, Winnebago, and Iowa representatives under the guidance of Indian Agent Nicholas Boilvin. First Lady Dolley Madison reported that the second delegation included twenty-nine Native Americans, five interpreters, and various heads of departments, resulting in a delegation totaling forty individuals.3

Map of North and South Carolina depicting the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation following the Treaty of Hopewell (Robert Laurie and James Whittle, 1794)

Library of Congress

Upon their arrival, President Madison welcomed the representatives, stating, “You have come thro’ a long path to see your father but it is a straight and clean path kept open for my red children who hate crooked paths.” The president proclaimed his “regard for all [his] red children,” which made him “desirous that the bloody tomahawk should be buried” between the federal government and Native American nations. The delegation dined with the president and first lady in the White House, during which tribal leaders gave speeches and exchanged gifts, lasting six hours.4

In attempts to persuade the tribes to ally with the United States, President Madison described the tumultuous relations the United States and Britain experienced in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, criticizing the British as “weak” with disingenuous intentions “to decoy the red people into the war on their side.” President Madison described Britain’s motivation for the War of 1812:

…an old grudge against the 18 fires, because when he tried to make them dig and plant for his people beyond the great water, not for themselves, they sent our warriors who beat his warriors, they drove off the bad chiefs he had sent among them, and set up good chiefs of their own. The 18 fires did this when they had not the strength they have now. Their blows will be much heavier, and will soon make him do them justice. It happened when the 13 fires, now increased to 18 forced the British King, to threat them as an independent nation, one little fire did not join them. This he has held ever since. It is there that his agents and traders plot quarrels and wars between the 18 fires and their red brethren, and between one tribe and another.5

President Madison offered protection to the Native American tribes against the British, yet he also warned his guests if they chose to align with the British: “Your father loves justice. He extends it to all the red tribes. When they keep the chain of friendship with the 18 fires, bright, he will protect them, and do them good. If any make the chain bloody, it must be broken on their heads.” Madison assured, “When they feel the punishment, they must blame their own folly, and the bad councils to which they have listened.”6

President Madison hoped to discourage alliances between the British and Native American tribes of the American Midwest. Artist Charles Williams’ 1812 political cartoon reflects this growing wartime anxiety. The image depicts Native Americans offering the scalps of American soldiers to a British officer. The cartoon was most likely created after the August 1812 massacre at Fort Dearborn (present-day Chicago) in which the British Colonel Henry Patrick Proctor reportedly purchased American scalps from the Potawatomi. The British officer in the image asks Native Americans to “Bring me the Scalps and the King our master will reward you.” The text below the image reads:

Arise Columbia’s Sons and forward press, / Your Country’s wrongs call loudly for redress; / The Savage Indian with his Scalping knife, / Or Tomahawk may seek to take your life; / By bravery aw’d they’ll in a dreadful Fright, / Shrink back for Refuge to the Woods in Flight; / Their British leaders then will quickly shake, / And for those wrongs shall restitution make.7

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Following the War of 1812, President James Monroe continued to pursue alliances between the federal government and Native Americans nations. Between November 1821 and February 1822, seventeen representatives from various Native American nations visited the White House upon the invitation of President Monroe, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, and the Indian Agent for the Upper Missouri Benjamin O’Fallon. Representatives of the delegation included Monchousia (White Plume) of the Kansa of Kaw, Petalesharro (Generous Chief) and Sharitahrish (Wicked Chief) of the Pawnee, and Hayne Hudjihini (Eagle of Delight) and Sumonyeacathee (Prairie Wolf) of the Otoe-Missouria.

The portraits of Hayne Hudjihini, the only Native American woman participant of the delegation, and her husband, Chief Sumonyeacathee, were both painted by Charles Bird King and their likenesses are part of the White House Collection. Hudjihini was a member of the Eagle clan of the Jiwere-Nut’achi, or Otoe-Missouri, tribe located in the Great Lakes Region near present-day Nebraska, and Chief Sumonyeacathee was of the Otoe-Missouria Bear clan.8 While the Otoes and Missourias were related in language and customs and formed a single united tribe, they were two distinct peoples.9 Both Hudjihini and her husband traveled to Washington, D.C. as part of the 1821-1822 delegation. As leaders and ambassadors of the Otoe-Missouria people, Hudjihini and Chief Sumonyeacathee discussed the sovereignty of their people and a possible alliance with the federal government.10 Each male delegate who traveled to the White House received a peace medal with an inscription of President Monroe’s profile; as the only woman ambassador, Hudjihini did not receive a medal.11

Prior to the White House visit, in 1804, the Otoe-Missourias had met with western explorers Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark. As official representatives of President Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark offered an alliance with the tribe while placing the Otoe-Missourias under the sovereignty of the United States. Despite the delegation’s meeting with President Monroe, the federal government abandoned the presumed alliance and forcibly removed the Otoe-Missouria people first to a reservation in southeast Nebraska in 1855 and later to a reservation in Red Rock, Oklahoma, in 1881. The federal government confiscated these tribal lands and attempted to “civilize” Otoe-Missouria children by forcing them to enroll in boarding schools. Following the Dawes Act of 1887, the federal government again broke up the Otoe-Missouria reservation and sold parcels of the land as “surplus” to whites to build railroads.12

Like that of the Otoe-Missourias, many diplomatic meetings between Native Americans and presidents dealt with land cessions and treaties, such as the forceful removal of the “Five Civilized Tribes” from the American Southeast during the period of Indian Removal. When the Dahlonega Gold Belt in Georgia was discovered in 1829, thousands of white settlers and miners poured into the region, as well as Cherokee territory. This became known as the Georgia Gold Rush, the first major gold rush in U.S. history. To profit from the gold fever, the state of Georgia created a lottery to sell Cherokee lands to white settlers in 1830. President Andrew Jackson subsequently demanded that the Cherokee abandon their territory and move westward. The National Council, the legislative body of the Cherokee Nation, sued the state of Georgia in federal court over land jurisdiction and for denying the Cherokee Nation the right to conduct national elections. In the resulting 1832 U.S. Supreme Court case Worcester v. Georgia, Chief Justice John Marshall and the presiding judges ruled that only the federal government held the authority to enact legislation with the Cherokee Nation and Native American tribes.13

President Jackson and the state of Georgia, however, ignored the high court’s ruling. Jackson’s stance remained firm: “John Marshall has made his decision; let him enforce it now if he can.”14 Following the decision, a Cherokee delegation traveled to the White House to meet with President Jackson, led by John Ridge, the clerk of the Cherokee National Council. When Ridge questioned if the “power of the United States would be exerted to execute the decision and put down the legislation of Georgia,” President Jackson assured him that it would not, and recommended that Ridge “go home and advise his people that their only hope of relief was in abandoning their country and removing to the West.”15 After the meeting, Ridge’s stance on removal began to shift, believing that westward migration to Indian Territory would be the only option for the Cherokee to retain tribal sovereignty. Disagreement between two factions of Cherokee leaders ensued: the removal faction led by Major Ridge, as well as his son John Ridge and nephew Elias Boudinot, and the anti-removal faction led by Principal Chief John Ross.

Between 1832 and 1835, both factions led delegations to Washington, D.C. numerous times to discuss the issue of removal. As Ross and a delegation of Cherokee political leaders traveled to Washington, D.C., on December 29, 1835 to protest removal, Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Andrew Ross, the brother of Principal Chief John Ross, along with seventeen other Cherokee headmen, signed the Treaty of New Echota at New Echota, Georgia. The treaty was an illegitimate agreement, because the Cherokee signees represented a minority of the Nation and did not have the political authority to enact such an agreement with the federal government.16 The treaty stipulated $5 million be paid to the Cherokee Nation for ceded land and a guarantee of seven million acres of territory west of the Mississippi River. Ross immediately denounced the treaty and urged Congress to reject it, presenting signatures of more than 12,000 Cherokees that opposed the agreement. President Jackson, however, ignored Ross’s protest and stated that the federal government no longer had an obligation to recognize the Cherokee as a legitimate government or sovereign nation. The U.S. Senate ratified the Treaty of New Echota on May 23, 1836, and Indian Removal of the Cherokee began.17

A delegation of Southern Plains Native Americans—members of the Apache, Arapaho, Caddo, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Kiowa nations—traveled to the White House to meet with President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 during the Civil War. President Lincoln hoped to establish alliances with the Native American representatives to prevent these nations from joining the Confederacy, as the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole had. During the White House visit, the president intended “to impress them with the extent of our country, the numbers and power of our people, and to conclude with them treaties of peace of vast importance to emigrants over the plains.”18 Samuel G. Colley served as the Indian Agent of the delegation, and John Simpson Smith interpreted the meeting. The delegation met with foreign ministers, the secretaries of the Interior, State, and Treasury departments, and the commissioner of Indian Affairs in the East Room of the White House.19

Following speeches made by leaders of the delegation, President Lincoln is reported to have replied “in a spirit of encouragement,” while pointing out differences between white people and Native Americans, “both as to their numbers and social condition.” President Lincoln stated, “the former were great and prosperous because they depended on the arts of peace and fruits of the earth, rather than upon game and buffalo.” In reference to the Civil War, Lincoln defended the actions of the Union while debasing Native American approaches to war: “Although we were engaged in a great and ugly war, yet, in the main we were not so much disposed to fight and kill one another as our red brethren had been to slay us.” Lincoln ensured it was the desire of the federal government and the Union “to live on terms of peace” with Native Americans of the Southern Plains,” and that “care would be taken to have them comfortably returned to their homes” following their visit.20

Despite President Lincoln’s assurances of peace and alliance, the Union Army committed atrocities against Native American nations during the Civil War, such as the Sand Creek Massacre on November 29, 1864. Led by Colonel John Chivington, seven hundred soldiers attacked an Arapaho and Cheyenne camp along Sand Creek near the Kansas border of the Colorado Territory. American soldiers forced approximately 1,000 members of the Arapaho and Cheyenne nations along the waterway, murdering approximately 175 individuals, dismembering body parts as trophies, and setting fire to the village. The majority of the dead were women, children, and the elderly, those who believed they had made peace with the federal government under the administration of President Lincoln. Following the massacre, President Lincoln replaced the territorial governor of Colorado, John Evans, and Congress condemned the incident as a massacre. While the federal government promised the Arapaho and Cheyenne peoples reparations, none were provided.21

Pictured are members of the Southern Plains delegation in the White House Conservatory. The delegates in the front row are, left to right: War Bonnet, Standing in the Water, and Lean Bear of the Cheyenne, and Yellow Wolf of the Kiowa. The identities of individuals in the second row are unknown. On the back row to the left stands the interpreter William Simpson Smith and agent Samuel G. Colley. The woman at the far right is frequently identified as Mary Todd Lincoln.

Library of Congress

In 1874, Colonel George Armstrong Custer led an expedition to the Black Hills in search of gold. The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, however, established the Black Hills as part of the Sioux Reservation of the Dakota Territory, setting apart the land “for the absolute and undisturbed use occupation” of the Sioux.22 Once word of gold deposits at Deadwood reached the press, thousands of white prospectors violated the terms of the treaty and invaded the Sioux Reservation and lands of the Northern Cheyennes, similar to the Georgia Gold Rush into Cherokee territory some forty years earlier. In March of that year, President Ulysses S. Grant sent an Indian agent to meet with members of the Sioux Reservation and propose the purchase of their sacred land. Red Cloud, a Sioux chief, instead demanded to meet with President Grant in person in Washington, D.C., to discuss the invasion of white prospectors.23

The Teton Sioux, also known as Lakota, delegation arrived at the White House in 1875 and promptly met with President Grant. Grant attempted to convince the Teton Sioux to move to Indian Territory and relinquish their land rights to the Black Hills: “There is a territory south of where you now live, where the climate is very much better, and the grass is very much better, and the game is more abundant, including large game such as buffalo: where you can have good pasturage for animals; and where you can have teachers among you to teach you the arts of self-preservation and self support.”24 The delegates rejected President Grant’s offer and returned to the Black Hills. Despite efforts of the delegation to demand that the federal government adhere to the terms of the Treaty of Laramie, white prospectors continued to invade the northern Great Plains under the protection of the federal government culminating in the Great Sioux War of 1876 and 1877. A series of fifteen battles and encounters ensued between the Teton Sioux, Northern Cheyennes, and the U.S. Army across present-day Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and South Dakota.25 Following the Great Sioux War, the federal government confiscated the Black Hills, which are still contested today, and forcefully dispersed Native American nations across Indian Territory.26

Map of the northern portion of the Black Hills illustrated by Rand, McNally, and Company, 1877.

Library of Congress

Native American delegations continued to appeal these injustices throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. In February of 1925, President Calvin Coolidge met with members of the Sioux Indian Republican Club of the Rosebud Indian Reservation at the White House. The Rosebud Indian Reservation was established in 1889, following President Grant’s land cession of the Great Sioux Reservation. It is located along the southern border of South Dakota, adjacent to the Pine Ridge Reservation.

The meeting followed Congress’s passing of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, also known as the Snyder Act, named after the bill’s sponsor Representative Homer R. Snyder of New York. The delegation met with President Coolidge in commemoration of the act’s passage. The act was signed into law on June 2, 1924, and intended to grant U.S. citizenship to all Native Americans born in the United States. This legislation, however, did not guarantee Native Americans the right to vote in federal or state elections because voting rights were then determined by state law. In some states, Native Americans did not secure the right to vote until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. At the same time, many Native American nations rejected the idea of U.S. citizenship through the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 because it violated tribal sovereignty.27

President Calvin Coolidge with members of the Sioux Republican Club of the Rosebud Reservation at the White House (1925)

Library of Congress

Controversy over Native American sovereignty and self-determination continued throughout the mid-twentieth century and into the administration of President John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy met with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) at the White House in March 1963. Founded in 1944 in Denver, Colorado, the NCAI served as a collective voice for tribal governments and communities to protest assimilation and sovereignty policies enacted by federal and state governments. The NCAI worked to protect the tribal sovereignty of Native American and Alaska Native peoples, secure treaties made between tribal governments and the federal government, preserve the traditional, cultural, and religious rights and laws of Native people, educate the public toward a better understanding of Native peoples, and promote the common welfare of Native communities. The NCAI is now headquartered at the Embassy of Tribal Nations in Washington, D.C.28

In meeting with President Kennedy in 1963, the NCAI wanted Congress to amend the 1953 Public Law 83-280, which conferred civil and criminal jurisdiction over reservations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, California, Oregon, and later Alaska. Members of the NCAI contended that in many of the states of jurisdiction, prejudice against Native people was too strong to allow for fair and impartial treatment in court. Other goals of the 1963 delegation included to improve working relations with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Public Health Service Division of Indian Health, to oppose any proposal to rid Native American nations of their land, prevent the termination of tribal sovereignty, and to support legislative proposals of the Public Works Acceleration Act, the Youth Conservation Corps bill, and the National Service Corps.29

During the NCAI delegation, President Kennedy emphasized the need for “respect for Indian self-government and the tribal councils and the importance of working closely with them; the need for greater educational opportunities and vocational training; the need for economic development of the Indian reservations and greater employment; the need for prompt and just settlements of outstanding claims for past injustices.”30

President John F. Kennedy speaks to the National Congress of American Indians on the South Lawn of the White House near the Rose Garden, 1963.

Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

Native American delegates continued to fight for self-determination and sovereignty during the 1960s and 1970s, particularly during the administration of President Gerald R. Ford. On the eve of the Bicentennial of the United States, members of the American Indian Movement organized the Trail of Self-Determination, similar to the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties movement that occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in Washington, D.C. The primary intent of the protest was to demand economic self-determination, the protection of land rights, and complete authority over the use and management of natural resources on tribal lands.31

In June 1976, the car caravan of protestors began its journey to the White House at the Yakima Nation in Washington State. Members of other Native American nations such as the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux of South Dakota and the Wolf Point Sioux and Blackfoot of Montana joined the caravan along its journey across the Northwest and Great Plains. Approximately 150 participants arrived in Washington, D.C., on July 3, 1976. The group immediately demonstrated in front of the U.S. Capitol, setting up camp at the American University soccer field and the Piscataway Indian Center. The following day, July 4, the group, now approximately 300 in number, gathered in front of the White House and demanded to meet with President Ford to little avail. Instead, Secretary of the Interior Dennis Ickes ordered the arrest of fifty-four protestors. Despite the arrests, the Trail of Self-Determination protestors continued to hold demonstrations in front of the White House throughout the month of July until the BIA refused to meet their demands, and the members left Washington, D.C.32

Native Nations Rise protest, 2017.

Victoria Pickering, Flickr

Building on the legacy of the Trail of Broken Treaties and the Trail of Self-Determination, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe led the Native Nations Rise March in Washington, D.C., on March 10, 2017, to protest the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline and advocate for Indigenous rights. In 2015, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, a sovereign nation, passed a resolution that stated the pipeline posed an extreme risk to the survival of the nation, destruction to cultural resources and sacred lands, and harm to Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth) and Mni Wiconi (water).33

During the Native Nations Rise March, Native leaders lobbied in Washington, D.C. on the behalf of all Native peoples. Protestors began the march at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers building and concluded the march at the White House. Across the National Mall and near the White House, protestors set up teepees to represent their reclaiming of the stolen lands on which the White House and the Capitol stand. The demands of the movement included for the president to meet with tribal leaders to understand why the federal government is responsible for recognizing tribal rights, for the federal government to no longer marginalize tribal interests to the interests of corporations or federal and state governments, and to demonstrate that the Standing Rock movement was not an isolated protest, but a collective Indigenous movement to demand the respect of Native nations and their rights. Following the march, the courts determined that construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Energy Transfer Partners violates Article II of the aforementioned Treaty of Fort Laramie.34

For more than two centuries, Native American delegates and activists have visited the White House to assert their own autonomy and demand environmental, economic, political, and cultural rights. Native American representatives pursued these objectives by appealing directly to presidents, as the chief executive was tasked with overseeing foreign affairs and empowered to make treaties with other nations. However, executive actions have often failed to fully recognize Native American sovereignty and acknowledge past injustices to Native American peoples. Recently, Native American nations and activists have had much greater success through judicial proceedings to achieve these goals. However, given the visibility of the White House and its symbolism for democracy and equality, Native American diplomacy and protest will likely continue outside its gates.

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