I should start by stating that I am aware I’m probably not the first to use such an assignment technique, and that there are undoubtedly more refined versions of this assignment out there, but I do feel that the success of my treaty assignment this semester does warrant some discussion.
It was also not a project I intended to have the students work on when the semester began, and group work was noted on the syllabus in the more traditional format of research project and class presentation. It was during one of you weekly dissections of the numbered treaties – Treaty 4, if I recall correctly – as I was listening to the students trying to grapple the task of reading beyond the words, that the idea of asking them to create a treaty bubbled up from my subconscious.
It was watching the students, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, try to make themselves understood across the classroom; filtering their lived experiences into how the treaty informed their worldviews, (or how their worldviews informed their understanding of the treaty) and attempting to discern intent, and read what was not written in the treaties rather than taking them at face value; that it became obvious that they needed a way to get their hands dirty to truly understand what makes a treaty happen. Hopefully in the process, treaties would cease to be historical relics to be used in theoretical discussions, and a greater appreciation for their immediacy and legacy in the contemporary world would surface.
So I threw out the groups research presentation projects and set them the task of agreeing an inter-group treaty by the end of the semester. The parameters of the assignment itself were pretty simple, once I managed to find the software to create a (pretty basic) fantasy map.
The Treaty Assignment Map was an important component because I did not want to ask them to negotiate an imaginary treaty using territories that legitimately already belonged to Indigenous nations. We were already discussing multiple documents of settler-state land theft with the need to add further insult to injury. Once the map was created, the groups were asked to privately claim territory, and create an identity – ranging from Indigenous nation to settler community – replete with resources, history, culture etc.
Once these identities and territories had been established, each group was asked to create their treaty negotiations framework – what type of treaty they wanted, what they were willing to negotiate, what protocols they wanted to follow and other such issues. They essentially had complete intellectual freedom to build their treaty discussions, with the understanding that there were not to simply recreate a numbered treaty.
Moving into the negotiations, several of the groups were a little too confident that they had everything under control, until the reality of negotiating with several other groups at the same time began to hit home. Conflicting sub-treaties were agreed, lies were promised as truths, details agreed orally never made it onto paper, maintaining consensus within the groups themselves became more difficult as competing offers and/or threats manifest themselves in negotiations, while concurrent negotiations using a variety of negotiators often resulted in confusion as to who had agreed what, with whom, and what terms. One group even managed to sign a treaty with another group agreeing to help remove a third group from their territory while at the same time agreeing terms of kinship and intermarriage with the same group they had agreed to remove, essentially removing themselves in the process.
And by the end of the exercise, when in a scramble to produce an actual treaty, they all caved in and agreed a very simple agreement of peace and friendship containing very few clauses, this is where the students found the beauty in what they learned. Treaty history is often portrayed with Indigenous groups represented as a homogenous collective all settling for the same mutually agreed terms from the Crown in each specifically numbered negotiation. In the chaos of the classroom setting, where frustrations often boiled over, the students realized that this was never the case. That settler-colonialism was not benign as they had been taught, and that the idea that Indigenous nations knew exactly what they were signing was a falsehood. They also recognized that this failure to understand did not represent lower intellectual capabilities among Indigenous communities, but was more a case of incompatible worldviews. Even groups allied to each other were distracted and divided with mis-stated intent or duplicitous promises from another group. The issue of territorial sovereignty was one of the most hard-fought contests during the exercise, and gave many students pause to reconsider how the treaty relationship to the land – as well as the Indigenous relationship to the land – is taught, and what lessons are hidden from them in this teaching.
Several students demanded to know where the Indigenous perspective was in the exercise and there was an important lesson here too. While some wanted a more overt representation of Indigeneity in the negotiations, this had deliberately been left under the purview of each individual group. While each classroom proceeding began with formal introductions and statements of intent, the non-Indigenous students were careful to respect their Indigenous classmates by not overstepping cultural boundaries or protocols. Thus, the best method of identifying Indigenous perspectives were in the negotiations themselves. Each student spoke English as a first language and were confident they knew how treaties were negotiated, only to find themselves outflanking each other or being outflanked on a regular basis. In a real-time setting they understood how difficulty it was to negotiate in a foreign language, with a party intent on consolidating them into a single homogenous group and using duplicity to reach those aims. The non-Indigenous students said that they now understood the magnitude of what the treaties represented, while several Indigenous students responded that they too understood more about the reality of sitting in negotiations with the weight of responsibility for future generations depending upon the outcome.
There are some tweaks I need to fix before offering the assignment again, such as making it a semester-long project rather than the final two weeks of the semester, and asking students to consider Indigenous perspectives more beforehand. Listening to the students offer their thoughts on how they are now reading the treaties differently than before, and understanding more about reading what is NOT written as much as what is, as well as having a better grasp on the literal effects of settler-colonialism and settlerism more generally, it is definitely an assignment I will be keeping for the future.